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Fats: What's the Skinny, Anyway?

Back in the early 90s I was a college student. I had a part time job on campus working with the IT department. I was concerned about my weight and the “Freshman 60” I had somehow managed to pack on. One of my co-workers was well known for his dedication to fitness and I went to him for advice.

What I got was and was not helpful. Like I said, this was the early 90s and low fat dieting had taken over the country. Dean Ornish and Susan Powter were the celebrities of the day, stopping the insanity of our high fat lifestyles, and showing us the path to health and vitality through high carb plant based diets.

As such, I was advised to pursue a low fat lifestyle. I ate bagels, rice cakes, fruit and vegetables, and lean meats. And you know what? I lost weight. I jumped on that band wagon so heard I nearly broke an axle. I remember getting lunch at a local health food restaurant with Samantha (yes, we’ve been together that long) and watching one of the employees load up a veggie sandwich with half an avacado. I turned to her, my eyes wide, “Good God, the fat!” I whispered.

Ah, the foolishness of youth.

If you remember my post on protein from last week, I said, “You’re personal mileage my vary.” The reason that the low fat diet did gain such traction and was so popular is that for many people it worked. Or at least it did what they wanted it to do, which was to make them lose weight. In 1993 Dean Ornish published Eat More, Weigh Less. I mean, come on, with a title like that it’s a no brainer that it ended up on the New York Times best seller list. But as Dan John has mentioned many times before if your only goal is to lose weight we can lop off an arm or a leg and achieve the same goal much more easily. Is that what you really want?

No. What most of us really want is to be healthy. And the truth is, to be truly healthy means all your systems are working as optimally as possible. For that to happen you need to eat fat. Fat and dietary cholesterol are essential nutrients to your health and well being. Your hormones, especially those all important sex hormones, are fat dependent. The walls of your cells are made of lipids (that’s fat, by the way.) Your heart needs fat. So does your nervous system. It’s a source of energy. It’s required in the absorption of many vitamins and minerals. And it tastes good. Which should be an indicator that it must be good for us in some manner, otherwise why would we have evolved to find it so enjoyable?

In my own experience, I lost weight and I also felt pretty miserable. I didn’t love my food. The down side of low fat dieting is that in order to make your food taste better it’s often loaded with more sugar. Which can often lead to a situation referred to as skinny fat. I was deficient in both protein and fats. I had a much lower muscle mass, low energy, and I seemed to get sick more easily and often. The scale said I was smaller but I didn’t look particularly lean and I was certainly not muscular. Full disclosure: I was also 20, smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, and was nowhere near the paragon of health and vitality you see before you today.

I maintained some semblance of this diet for about three years. Thankfully, I started cooking at a high end Mediterranean restaurant. Restaurant life does not include lunch breaks or, well, any breaks whatsoever, unless you’re a smoker. In which case you can justify a few minutes off the line to grab a quick smoke during slow times. That means you eat on the fly, grabbing a bite of this or that as you go. Naturally you gravitate to the more nutritionally and calorically dense foods available. Those are usually higher in fat. It wasn’t until I was well into my fitness career that I realized I’d even made this move, but looking back I can see the difference it made.

So, if you’re willing to entertain the idea that fats aren’t bad. What about the kinds of fats? Here’s where we can get into a very technical landscape of qualifiers and distinctions that I think for most of us lay people just leads to checking out and not actually getting to something actionable or useful. There’s tons of literature on this subject and I recommend you do some research yourself, but I’m going to keep my advice simple: If somebody had to make it in a lab or it involves a highly complex extraction, purification, and taste improving process you probably don’t want to eat it.

So, yes, include fat in your diet. The good news is that fat, on its own is self limiting. Just ask yourself, how much butter can I eat in one sitting? Yeah, no matter how hungry you are, we can all agree there will be a limit to how much you can eat. Now compare that with buttercream icing. Fat mixed with sugar seems to know no limit and we can easily imagine (or remember) gorging ourselves into a self induced misery. There's a lesson there, short version: be more wary of sugar than fat. Yes, sugar does make life better, but it comes at a cost. Choose wisely.

Some false fats, sometimes called Franken-fats, are easy to identify. They come with words like hydrogenated or trans. The name tells you that it’s been manipulated. Others are harder to tell. Seed oils look like naturally occurring fats, and I guess they are, but in order to get them to a consumable state they need a lot of processing, not the least of which is flavor enhancing. Left on their own they taste so bad you’d never consider eating them, but our food industry is quite skilled at rendering the inedible edible and convincing you it’s something you want.

What are the natural fats you do want? I’m glad you asked.

Avacado oil

Olive Oil

Animal fats

Butter, especially butter from grass fed cows


Fish oil (as a supplement, I don’t think anyone wants to actually cook with fish oil...)

And that’s it.

I’ll write more later on about how I use these fats. Today I just wanted to focus on fat as a nutrient and help dispel some of the lingering fears concerning dietary fat and our nation’s disastrous experiment with low fat diets.

Next on my list is carbohydrates. I’ll tackle that as subject on its own just like I’ve done with protein and fat. After that I hope to include some posts how I actually apply all of this information, including recipes and techniques for how I cook and prep my meals and supplementation to round out the gaps that are inevitable in today’s landscape.

Got comments? Totally disagree? Or maybe you totally do agree with what I've written. Drop a line below.

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Thanks for the knowledge!

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