The Skinny on Fat: How Bad for Us Is Fat—Really?

The total fail of the fat-free ’80s and ’90s taught us that fat isn’t perhaps the villain we made it out to be, and that following a low-fat diet not only isn’t the cure to obesity but also may actually make things worse. That’s because fat plays an important role in giving us energy, building healthy cells, and helping us feel full. A 2012 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition even absolved saturated fat, an often-maligned type of fat, citing the discovery that there wasn’t enough proof to link saturated fat to either heart disease or stroke.

And yet many—including some of the most outspoken proponents of plant-based, vegan diets—still advocate for very minimal fat intake, even when those fats are “healthy” non-animal fats like those found in avocados, nuts, and seeds. “When I first came out of graduate school in 1996, I thought a low-fat vegan diet was the answer, too,” says John Bagnulo, PhD, MPH, a nutritionist and Kripalu presenter. “And while I think a whole-grain diet centered on beans and rice can still produce very favorable results for many people who are otherwise used to consuming refined foods—things in packages, white bread—most times, when people see results from cutting out fat, it’s because they’re also often eating fewer refined carbs at the same time: No dip, so no chips. No peanut butter, so no bagels. And really, it’s not the lower fat intake that makes the difference, but the lower carb intake.”

In fact, if we’re following a no- or low-grain diet, John says it’s not how much fat we eat but what sort of fat that matters—and it may not be the fat you’re used to. Coconut oil, for example, is one of the most beneficial overall fats, he says, known for improving heart health, boosting metabolism, promoting weight loss, and supporting the immune system. And yet it’s nearly purely saturated fat. “We need to look at the big-picture changes,” he says. “Someone who adheres to a diet rich in coconut oil may have an increase in total cholesterol—and that’s a ‘might’—but when we look at those cholesterol molecules we see that they’re fluffier and less dense. What’s more, the saturated fat in coconut oil doesn’t form free radicals when heated, which makes it superior to all other oils for cooking.” Other “good” fats include extra-virgin olive oil, omega-3 fatty acids, and monounsaturated fats found in avocados, I don’t see it maligned above nuts, and seeds. Fats to avoid include the usual suspects—hydrogenated oils, partially hydrogenated oils, and, of course, trans fats—but also, he says, some highly polyunsaturated oils like corn, safflower, sunflower, and vegetable oil blends which have been linked to cancer, diabetes, obesity, premature aging, thrombosis, arthritis, and immunodeficiencies. The only oils he recommends using are olive and coconut.

When tracking carbohydrate intake, says John, it’s best to stay away from foods that are more than 23 percent carbohydrate by weight; higher than that can impact blood-sugar levels, cause inflammation and bacteria growth, and lead to weight gain. This number means eliminating all grains, flours, sugar, and sweeteners, but leave in fruit, which averages 10 to 15 percent carb by weight. “One of the best breakfasts you can have is fresh fruit with some nut or seed butter,” he says. “People need to know that oatmeal is not the breakfast of champions. And that fat is not necessarily the enemy.”

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