Diet and Nutrition: Tips for Healthy Eating

Are you really telling people to eat a lot of butter?

Butter, meat, and cheese have been condemned since the early 1960s based on their cholesterol and saturated fat content, yet now, these two pillars of the diet-heart hypothesis have been questioned: dietary cholesterol is no longer thought to lead to adverse blood lipids, and the link between saturated fat and cardiovascular mortality has been seriously challenged. If saturated fat and cholesterol do not cause disease, then there is no reason to avoid these foods. That doesn’t mean that we should gorge on them. It just means: let them out of jail. They’ve been unfairly condemned based on weak evidence.

Beyond that, there’s a large body of rigorous trial evidence demonstrating that a higher-fat diet (>35% of calories as fat) is healthy, safe, and highly effective in fighting obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Americans, in fact, used to eat some 43% of calories as fat in 1965, before the epidemics of obesity and diabetes. So, how do you get to a higher fat diet? The best way to do that is to add natural fats to the diet. Vegetable oils are industrially produced, invovling a long process that includes high-pressure extraction with the solvent hexane, steam cleaning, treating with a nickel catalyst, mixing with soap-like emulsifiers, “deoderization” to remove bad odors, bleaching to remove the grey color, and “winterization.” By contrast, animal fats such as butter and lard are natural, involve almost no processing, and have been eaten by humans for millennia. For vegetarians, coconut and palm oil are good, natural sources of saturated fat. But for most Americans who come from northern climates where tropical fats are not part of their historic diets, a higher fat diet is likely to include natural fats like butter, lard, tallow, schmaltz, and suet.

This is not to say that some people do not thrive on high-carb diets: certainly they do. Human responses to diet vary enormously.

Yet for the majority of Americans who are overweight, pre-diabetic or diabetic, the most rigorous science strongly supports a diet restricted in carbohydrates and high in fat as the best tool for combating these diseases.

Won’t my cholesterol go up if I eat more saturated fat?

The short answer is: Maybe, but not in a way that will increase your risk for heart disease. Saturated fat was originally demonized for its ability to raise total cholesterol. However, researchers in the 1980s discovered that total cholesterol did not turn out to be a reliable predictor of heart attack risk. The conversation then shifted to saturated fat’s tendency to raise LDL-cholesterol (the “bad” kind). However, yet again, clinical trials could not confirm LDL-C’s ability to predict heart attack risk. In many large clinical trials, LDL-C did not turn out to be correlated with the risk of dying from heart disease.

Also, it turns out that LDL-C has sub-fractions: some are small and dense, while others are light and buoyant. The small, dense ones have been found to predict increased risk, whereas the light, buoyant ones predict reduced risk. The kind of LDL that saturated fats cause to increase is the light, buoyant kind. Therefore, saturated fats actually appear to reduce heart-disease risk, not increase it.

Moreover, saturated fats are the only foods known to increase your HDL-C, the “good” cholesterol. When your doctor tells you to raise your HDL, s/he will recommend drinking red wine or getting more exercise, but a far easier way to raise HDL is simply to eat more saturated fats. Saturated fats reliably boost the “good” HDL cholesterol.

The first succinct publication of all this information was in an article that I wrote for Men’s Health magazine, “What if Bad Fat is Actually Good for You?” way back in 2007.

So, in sum, the effects of saturated fat on blood lipids can be said to be positive. Further explanation and references on all of the above can be found in my book.

How can I eat a healthy, higher-fat diet?

Check back, we’re developing this section as a resource for you.

How can I help my kids eat more healthfully?

As the mother of a teen and pre-teen, I know how hard it can be to help children make good food choices, especially when so many of their peers are eating junk food. The whole area can be a psychological mine field with kids. I have just a few pieces of advice, based on my own trial-and-largely-error efforts:

  • Do not take away food from kids or make them feel deprived. Instead, supply them with fun, healthy alternatives that are as close as possible to what they are replacing. And let’s not pretend hard-boiled eggs are as fun as pizza. Instead of pizza give them low-carb pizza. Instead of a chocolate bar full of sugar, give them a low-carb chocolate bar with artificial sweeteners. It makes no sense to be a purist about artificial sweeteners if your kid is just going to sneak out and eat sugar. Try Fat Bombs. I like this book.
  • When a child craves something sweet, feed them fat instead. This is a good rule for grown-ups, too! Fat fills you up and will often simply wipe out the sweet craving. It can also be fun: a bowl of whipped cream with a touch of sweetener and cocoa powder, for instance. A few tablespoons of coconut butter (incredibly satiating and nutty-delicious). A savory fat bomb.
  • Ultimately, you want to get your child away from the taste of sweet things altogether—because a taste for sweet stuff does seem to be addicting, and thus, self-perpetuating. But it’s important to be realistic about what you can accomplish in this toxic food environment, especially when your children are older children and more responsive to peer pressure than they are to parental advice.
  • If your children are younger, you have more control, obviously. Try to create a home environment that is healthy and relatively low-carb, and help them develop good tastes/habits. Limit snacking and instead focus on full, satisfying healthy meals that start with a healthy protein, then add vegetables and plenty of healthy, natural fats (which means no vegetable oils). Limit bread and starchy foods. Make dessert a special treat, maybe once a week (like it used to be a century ago), and not something eaten daily.

If your child is obese or has Type 2 diabetes, the situation is more urgent. Here are a couple of groups that can help:

Resources to educate kids:

Resources for lunchboxes and other food ideas:

Do you have a list of favorite books/recipes/websites/foods?

Check back, we’re developing this section as a resource for you.

What do you eat?

This section under development. Meanwhile, you can read this essay that I wrote for Family Circle magazine, “Fat vs. Fiction: The Truth About Fat in Your Diet.”

My doctor disapproves of a higher-fat diet. What should I tell him/her?

I would recommend giving your doctor a copy of my book, because most clinicians are unlikely to be persuaded by even a stack of articles. I find that people need to read the full story–the science, the politics, the influence of the food industry—in order to experience a paradigm shift. Plus, my book is not boring; The Economist called it a “nutrition thriller.” Plus it has 150 pages of footnotes, so it’s highly credible. I think it’s a lot to ask of someone to change decades of thinking—to believe the opposite of what they always thought was true. In my experience talking to people now for years on this subject, I find that people really need to read the whole story to understand.

However, as a short introduction, here is an interview with me on the subject of saturated fat on Medscape, which is a source that doctors tend to trust.

On saturated fats and heart disease, a short piece I wrote is “The Questionable Link Between Saturated Fat and Heart Disease,” in the Wall Street Journal (behind a paywall; also available here), which is adapted from my book. When it came out, it was the most emailed piece in the newspaper’s recent history.

How can I help change nutrition in my community or in America?

This section is under development.

Meanwhile, you can follow the work of The Nutrition Coalition, on Facebook or Twitter (@4dietaryreform). This group is organizing to bring to light the failure of our current nutritional guidelines and how they can be reformed. Watch that space.