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Busting The Zombie Myths That Wrongly Claim Eating Fat Makes You Fat

Published on October 8, 2013,

There’s a very good article in the blog Paleo Diet Lifestyle which compares the low fat diet to a zombie – it just won’t die. Every time you think it’s finally gone, they say, it just shows up again in another form, thinly disguised as a new position. This is an extract in which they address two of the biggest myths still associated with eating fat…

Guacamole, my fat friend

Guacamole, my fat friend (Photo credit: dollen)

Myth #1: Fat Makes Overeating Easier

In this version of the story, a calorie is a calorie whether it comes from fat or anything else. There’s nothing intrinsically fattening about fat itself, but fat is easier to overeat than carbohydrates or protein. So if you eat a low-fat diet, you’ll be restricting your calorie intake automatically, without having to count or track anything.

The evidence used to clinch this line is usually a simple piece of calorie math: fat has 9 calories per gram, while carbohydrates and protein have 4. So eating low-fat foods allows you to eat a bigger pile of food without gaining weight, which makes you feel fuller and less deprived, which lets you stick to a diet for longer.

Sounds great, right? Not so fast. Yes, it’s true that fat has more calories per gram than protein or carbs. That’s a simple fact and nobody’s arguing it. But for most people (with the notable exception of the long-term obese), this simply means that fat is more satiating than protein or carbs: when they eat high-fat foods, their body tells them to stop sooner, and they don’t want as much.

In this review (which concluded that “fat consumption … appears to have little if any effect on body fatness”), that effect is glossed over as “a compensatory mechanism,” but this report (free full-text) went into it a little more deeply: fat actually increases satiety, especially the medium-chain triglycerides found in butter and coconut oil. These fats activate appetite-suppressing hormones and slow stomach emptying (so you feel fuller longer).

Essentially, human bodies have a very sophisticated internal “calorie counter” that naturally compensates for higher energy density (more calories per gram) with a faster feeling of fullness. We weren’t designed to need calorie counters to regulate our food intake; we have our own! It’s a very elegant system and as long as you stick to real, whole foods, it works beautifully…

Myth #2: Fat is Empty Calories

Take a look at this quote from that bastion of terrible diet advice, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans:

Solid fats [namely, saturated fat] contribute an average of 19 percent of the total calories in American diets, but few essential nutrients and no dietary fiber.

This is part of their case against saturated fat and cholesterol. But it’s total nonsense.

First of all, fat is an essential nutrient. An “essential nutrient” is something necessary to life, and even the USDA admits that some amount of saturated fat is necessary to life. Saturated fat helps to form cell membranes all over your body, it’s necessary for good immune function, it’s a basic building block for hormones, and it provides energy (calories are a nutrient, too – they’re necessary to life just like magnesium or Vitamin C!). So claiming that solid fats contain “few essential nutrients” is silly.

But what if they’re talking about vitamins and minerals? Those are what most people think of as “essential nutrients.” Surely, you could make the case that fat (which contains no vitamins and minerals) is lower in essential nutrients than foods that do.

Sure you could. But claiming that “fats contain fewer nutrients” is absurd, because “carbohydrates” by themselves or “proteins” by themselves also contain no vitamins and minerals. So claiming that “fats contain fewer nutrients” is meaningless. What the USDA really means by this is that “foods containing solid fats provide few nutrients.” With that in mind, take a look at their very next sentence:

Some major food sources of solid fats in the American diet are grain-based desserts (11% of all solid fat intake); pizza (9%); regular (full-fat) cheese (8%); sausage, franks, bacon, and ribs (7%); and fried white potatoes (5%)

This completely fails to make a case against the Paleo menu. If this is your idea of “foods high in fat,” then yes, obviously high-fat foods will seem to contain fewer nutrients than low-fat foods. But if you take a look at whole foods that naturally contain solid fats, you’ll see a very different picture indeed. Some extremely nutritious foods that are high in saturated fat include:

If you’re consuming saturated fat from these foods, you aren’t getting “empty calories” by any means: on top of the saturated fat itself, they deliver all kinds of vitamins and minerals – often more than many “low-fat” foods. Which is more nutritious, a bowl of high-fat, high-cholesterol eggs, or a bowl of low-fat, cholesterol-free Rice Krispies?

More at:  Demolishing The Fat Makes You fat Myth

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