Nutrition research in the past few years has added confusion to the idea of “healthy eating.” Fat, in particular, has gotten clouded in conflicting ideas, information, and a refutation of long-held beliefs. This post will come in two parts because there is a lot of information. I wanted to provide a resource with some basic nutrition facts as well as updated research outcomes. I want to first address some recent hot topics.
A google search to find out “how to eat well” will yield many trendy super-foods, top ten lists, and secrets to well-being. However, to get basic information on the internet that is truthful and comprehensive can be near impossible.
Coconut oil is a short chain saturated fatty acid (SFA), which means it is absorbed directly from the stomach into the blood stream, rather than from the small intestine like other SFAs. While this difference may set coconut oil apart from butter or beef fat, there is no evidence showing how (or if) this impacts health.
Yes, you read that correctly: No evidence. What you do with that information is up to you- coconut oil can be delicious and a great tool in the kitchen, but if you’re using it with the belief that you’re preventing disease or extending your lifespan, you may be disappointed by the lack of supporting evidence from peer-reviewed studies. See the second part of this post for information about ways you can make food choices to decrease your risk of heart disease.
Is butter good for you?
Most of this hubbub has to do with a recent de-bunking of scientific studies that linked the cholesterol found in food (butter, egg yolks, etc) with the cholesterol that clogs arteries in the body. Such research originally made margarine popular, villainized butter, and encouraged low-fat dieting*.
Now that this research has been invalidated, many assume that butter has the green light! Like most things, though, it’s complicated… most foods that contain cholesterol also contain high levels of SFAs, so they should still be consumed in limited quantities. Recommendations for foods like eggs and shellfish, however, have relaxed because they are high in dietary cholesterol but low in SFAs (see part two for more info!).
Sugar is the new fat
Relating to #2, research has shown that diets high in fat are not leading to increased weight gain when compared to low-calorie and low fat diets* and the dangers of high sugar and refined carbohydrate intake are becoming more and more clear (another post on this coming).
The bottom line? The type of fat still matters, as does eating a healthy diet across the board. And the type of sugar matters, too: New Guidelines* suggest limiting added sugar (anything not found inside whole fruit or dairy) to less than 10% of daily calories.
The Mediterranean diet
Studies have shown that people who follow this eating pattern have reduced risk for heart disease. However, it is important to consider the eating pattern as a whole. For example, wine on its own is not considered healthy, yet it is included in the Mediterranean diet, in moderation, among fruits, vegetables, fatty fish, legumes, and whole grains. More information on this diet, including recipes and guidelines, is available at eatright.org and www.heart.org.
* Although low-fat dieting has been found to be ineffective, it is important to remember that a healthy diet consists of 20-35% total calories from fat. Use the website supertracker.usda.gov to choose the right calorie level for you.
**Dietary Guidelines for Americans are released every 5 years, updated based on scientific evidence and reviewed by panels of scientists, dietitians, and the public. The full document is free and available at http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/.