What’s the skinny on fats?

This is one of my favorite topics to discuss with my clients as it highlights both the good and the bad about the science of nutrition.  So, what is the skinny on fat?  Read on.

Back long, long ago, fat was demonized.  If you ate fat, you got fat, right?  Low-fat dietary guidelines were released in 1977 and the food industry jumped aboard and created fat-free foods that we all ate with abandon.  Mmmm, Entenmann’s…..

Interestingly enough, guess what statistic rose accordingly?


Obesity.  Hmmm.  Makes you think, right?  So when the food companies removed traditional fat (like butter) from their products, what was used as a replacement?  Yep.  Sugar.  Refined carbohydrates.  And the consumption of highly processed, sugar-laden foods began in earnest.  This is an example of the aforementioned bad nutrition.  Oopsie.

Fast forward to present-day nutrition.  What scientists are discovering is that there are many factors that go into health and picking one nutrient, i.e. saturated fat, as the culprit out of all the nutrients we consume isn’t the answer.  As Dr. Robert M. Knauss, director of atherosclerosis research at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute states, “It doesn’t make sense to focus on just one feature of the diet, such as saturated fat, while ignoring the health affects of the overall diet.”

I sat in on a lecture given by Dr. Knauss who spoke at length on this topic and his specialty: SIZE MATTERS when it comes to cholesterol particles.

Who knew?

LDL is comprised of subclasses of particles with differing cholesterol content and cardiovascular risk: large (the “good” kind), medium, and small (the “bad” kind).  (using good and bad to describe the particles isn’t quite accurate, but helps to simplify things)  The SMALL particles are the ones with which to be concerned because they are dense, enter the arterial walls easier, and have a greater tendency to cause plaque buildup.

Saturated fats generally contain more of the LARGE particles that are the “good” LDL.  Hence, while saturated fats raise not only your HDL, but also your LDL, it is the good kind of LDL.  Conclusion: butter is not the problem.

So what, you may ask, raises the “bad” kind of LDL?  Refined carbs.  Sugars.  White bread, pasta, and rice.  Those not only RAISE the small LDL particles, they also LOWER your HDL.  As Dr. Knauss stated, “Carbohydrates (especially sugars) have a major influence on smaller LDL particles.”

So does that mean we can eat saturated fat to our heart’s content?  Not so fast.  What Dr. Knauss went on to state was that it MATTERS where the fat is coming from.  Higher red meat intake is associated with increased mortality:

Red meat

However saturated fat from dairy is associated with LOWER risks:


Fat dairy

I don’t know about you, but I think this is really interesting stuff and is an example of what I called the “good” nutrition.

What’s the conclusion from all of this?  Simply that focusing on saturated fats is the wrong strategy.  Rather, focus on the big picture: what FOODS you are eating, not what NUTRIENTS you are eating.  And the diet that Dr. Knauss recommends?  One that is filled with lean protein, vegetables, and many kinds of fats (both saturated and unsaturated), with little to no consumption of sugars and refined carbohydrates.

Bottom line on fats?  No, they aren’t the pariah we all once thought they were, but neither are they something to consume with abandon.  Moderation, people.  Covers pretty much everything!

Questions?  Thoughts?  I’d love to hear from you.  Post a comment below!

Eat well.