Bad Fats Versus Good Fats
For years, fat was a bad word. But the truth is, not all fats are bad. Here, we sort out the good from the bad.
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Q. First they say butter and eggs are bad, now I hear they’re good. What’s the truth? — Jaime P., Syracuse, NY
A: Nutrition and dietary advice are constantly evolving, leaving consumers annoyed and confused. But with all the controversies and debates about everything from raw food to Paleo, there’s been one diet plan that just about everyone has endorsed over the past 40 years: The Mediterranean Diet.
There are a couple of problems, though, starting with the fact that the so-called “Mediterranean diet” is a catch-all term that has never been very well-defined and quantified. The Mediterranean pattern of eating tends to feature a lot of legumes, vegetables, fish, olive oil, and fruit, and is believed to be low in saturated fat and animal products—but who really knows what specific elements of the diet are res-ponsible for the health benefits?
What’s more, the health benefits may not be nearly as huge and global as we’ve been led to believe. A number of studies have shown that the Mediterranean Diet beats the heck out of the low-fat diet or the typical American diet, but honestly, that’s setting the bar pretty darn low—just about any diet will beat the American diet or the typical low-fat diet.
Fats, Grains, and Inflammation
Which brings me to my newest book, Smart Fat. Recently, a reporter asked me to describe in a few words the premise of the book, co-authored with Steven Masley, MD, LLC, the full title of which is Smart Fat: Eat More Fat, Lose More Weight, Get Healthy Now! I thought for a moment, and then found myself answering with a phrase I hadn’t ever used before, but which I now think sums up the Smart Fat program very effectively: Mediterranean Diet 3.0.
The Smart Fat program builds on a lot of the staples of the Mediterranean Diet—legumes, beans, vegetables, fish, fruit but updates it with the latest science on fat, grains, and inflammation.
We now know—from three major peer-reviewed meta-analyses published in the last five years in prestigious journals like the Annals of Internal Medicine and the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition—that saturated fat does not cause heart disease, and that there’s no reason to avoid fat just because it’s saturated (more on that in a moment). We also know that inflammation is one of the major promoters of every degenerative disease (from heart disease to obesity to cancer) and that over-consuming two widely promoted elements of the “Mediterranean Diet”— grains and vegetable oils—is like throwing kerosene on the fires of inflammation.
Grains and Inflammation
So the Smart Fat program is not heavy on grains. It doesn’t prohibit them, but it definitely cautions against overconsumption. Grains are generally high-glycemic, contributing to hormonal imbalance and insulin resistance, and—in the case of the large number of people who are gluten-sensitive or intolerant—much worse.
The Smart Fat program is also not heavy on vegetable oils, which is predominantly made up of omega-6 fats. We now know that the balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fats is critical for human health. The ideal ratio between the two is around 1:1, but research shows that our reliance on vegetable oils for just about everything has wound up producing a typical intake of 16:1 in favor of the pro-inflammatory omega-6s. When the ratio skews heavily toward omega-6 fats, as it does in the typical American diet, it fans the fires of inflammation.
Finally, the Smart Fat program accepts the notion of “good fat” and “bad fat,” but defines those terms differently from the way they are conventionally defined. Traditionally, we’ve come to think of “bad” fats as saturated fats, especially saturated fats from animals, while we’ve come to think of “good” fats as those that come from vegetable oils. We believe that definition is wildly past its sell-by date.
In our view, fats can be divided into three categories: Bad (or toxic) fat, neutral fat, and smart fat. And which category a fat falls into has absolutely nothing to do with whether it comes from an animal, or whether or not it’s saturated.
Let me explain. When we eat meat from factory farms—also known as CAFOs, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations—we are eating meat from cattle that have been fed antibiotics, steroids, and hormones, most of which winds up in their fat. Not only that, but these animals have been raised almost exclusively on grain, which is not their natural
diet, and which changes the composition of their fat, making it higher in inflammatory omega-6s and lower in anti-inflammatory omega-3s. The fat from these animals is indeed toxic, but because it’s contaminated, not because it’s saturated.
Saturated fat from grass-fed animals, on the other hand, isn’t toxic at all. Animals that are raised on their natural diet of pasture—and that aren’t shot full of hormones, steroids, and antibiotics—are a whole different story. Their fat is higher in omega-3s, lower in omega-6s, and absent the toxic residue from pesticide-sprayed grains. Grass-fed meat is a health food. Factory-farmed meat is a toxic waste dump.
Similarly, saturated fats from plant sources range from neutral (utterly harmless) to downright beneficial. Malaysian palm oil is loaded with tocotrienols from vitamin E, which help protect the brain, and with carotenoids, which give the oil its reddish color. Coconut oil is loaded with antimicrobials like lauric acid and caprylic acid. Coconut oil also helps produce ketones, a wonderful alternative source of energy for the brain, heart, and skeletal muscles. And most of the fat in coconut oil is a saturated fat known as MCT (medium chain triglycerides)—the body tends to use MCTs for energy rather than storing them as body fat. (MCTs are the main fat in the high-fat diets given at Johns Hopkins and other mainstream hospitals as a treatment for childhood epilepsy.) These fats are definitely not bad for you and emerging research is showing they may have significant health benefits.
The Smart Fat program also distinguishes between what we call clean protein and what we call mean protein. Mean protein is the toxic waste dump of animal products just described— meat that comes from animals raised in horrific conditions on huge factory farms. Grass-fed meat, on the other hand, is a health food—a wonderful source of protein without any of the “side dishes” of antibiotics, steroids, and hormones—and there’s no reason whatsoever to avoid it or the fat that comes with it.
Both the Mediterranean Diet and the Smart Fat program promote high fiber intake. Fiber is one of the best features of the Mediterranean Diet, and it definitely is retained in our upgraded Mediterranean-based plan. Fiber is associated with controlled blood sugar, healthy levels of insulin, weight loss, and heart health. And while the Mediterranean Diet doesn’t make any specific recommendations as far as daily fiber intake goes, Smart Fat recommends 10 servings a day, or roughly 30 grams of fiber. There’s plenty of difference between Smart Fat and the Mediterranean Diet when it comes to grains, vegetable oils, and saturated fat; when it comes to fiber, we’re completely in alignment.
The Mediterranean Diet Revisited
Every so often, it’s time to revisit some of our ancient nutritional prejudices, such as the ban on saturated fat, the wholesale endorsement of grains, and the recommendation to use vegetable oils for everything. That time has come. Our Smart Fat program takes the best of the Mediterranean patterns—fish, olive oil, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and beans—and modifies it by lifting the ban on clean, healthy saturated fat and clean, healthy animal products, while at the same time limiting the inflammation-promoting elements like vegetable oils and grains.
The result? A basically sound dietary prescription—the Mediterranean Diet—has been tweaked, cleaned up, and upgraded—and in the process, made many times better.
Coconut oil is loaded with antimicrobials like lauric acid and caprylic acid.
Did You Know?
The balace between the intake of omega-3 and omega-6 fats is critical for human health.
Grass-fed meat is a health food. Factory-farmed meat is a toxic waste dump.