Jack Spratt could eat no fat,
His wife could eat no lean.
So begins the popular children's nursery rhyme about a couple that between the two of them "licked the platter clean." Reading these words today, you might think Mr. Spratt sounds like a victim of the bad advice we got in the second half of the last century to eat a low-fat diet, and Mrs. Spratt sounds like a follower of the trendy meat-heavy "Paleo diet" loved by modern CrossFit worshipers and couch potatoes alike. Do you immediately identify with one half of the couple more than the other? Are you anti-saturated fat or pro-saturated fat? Are you pro-gluten or anti-gluten?
Well, if you are like most Americans, you're likely to lick the Spratt's whole platter clean by yourself. The truth is most of us aren't very good at following strict low-fat or strict low-carb diets even if we proclaim to be solidly in one camp or the other.
Now that we hear saturated fat may not be bad for us after all but whole wheat bread may be slowly killing nearly half of all Americans (see anything written by public television staple and Grain Brain author David Perlmutter), we are again presented with a seemingly stark choice about what type of diet to follow. And once again we could be headed down a dangerous dietary path due to a total misinterpretation of (or complete inability to follow) the latest advice. Last time we did this, we got a lot fatter and sicker. Read these profound words Dr. David Katz, Director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, posted in February:
The advice we got decades ago to cut dietary fat was never intended as advice to eat low-fat, high-starch, high-sugar cookies ... The advice to cut fat was intended to direct us to the naturally low-fat foods that existed at the time, namely vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, whole grains, and lean meats.
Dr. Katz goes on to explain that we didn't even really reduce our fat intake. It seems the percentage of calories from fat in our diets went down slightly after dietary fat was deemed a public health threat, but this was only because we increased our total calorie intake by adding low-fat empty calories to our diet under the impression that we were doing something positive for our heart health and our weight.
So let's take a deep breath before we switch to a diet of butter and bacon. Even if Dr. Perlmutter and other bagel haters like William Davis, M.D., the author of Wheat Belly, and Dr. Loren Cordain, the founder of the Paleo movement, are correct about the pervasive dangers of gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley and rye) and high carbohydrate foods in general, does this mean we should immediately switch to a diet high in saturated fat? A common mistake dieters make is assuming that because something is not bad or perhaps even good for you, a lot more of it must be really good for you (hence why cereals marketed as whole grain take up nearly an entire aisle in the supermarket). As we learned from watching bellies expand on doctor recommended diets rich in healthy whole grains, this isn't usually the case.
I eat a fairly high-fat (mostly the unsaturated variety) and low-carbohydrate diet. As a health coach, I suggest this way of eating to my clients and recommend all-natural, pastured (not from factory-farmed animals fattened up with antibiotics) animal products as part of a healthy diet. I try to eat as little flour as possible, but I enjoy whole carbohydrates like legumes, quinoa and brown rice in moderation because I love these foods and derive energy from them. I don't forbid any food group, but I follow and advocate what I call a "real food diet" because I believe it's nutrient-dense and far less inflammatory and more satisfying than a diet high in low-fat, processed wheat products. But I fear many people will hear the current trending advice to worry less about fat and more about gluten and make the same mistake Dr. Katz referenced.
If you opt to eat a higher fat diet, make sure you are actually eating a lower-gluten, lower-carbohydrate diet; otherwise, you are just eating more, period, and excess calories convert to fat. Switching from a supersize muffin to eggs for breakfast is a positive dietary change, but opting for eggs and bacon and then eating a muffin on a coffee break isn't going to be a recipe for weight loss. This sounds obvious, but so does what Dr. Katz says about the advice to eat less fat -- in hindsight. The average American indeed added a lot more empty calories from wheat-based carbohydrates and fat-free sugary treats but forgot to eliminate the fatty foods, thus creating the ultimate recipe for obesity and our modern healthcare crisis: a high-fat, high-carb, high-calorie diet.
Adding foods higher in healthy fat to your diet should increase your satiety, naturally leading to you eat less empty calories. Whether or not you have to watch your weight, adding sensible portions of higher fat foods like avocado, eggs and nuts to your diet are positive changes because these foods are nutrient-dense and have health-promoting properties, but if you gain weight easily, be sure to take some empty calories OUT too. Yes, it's common sense, but temptations often lead to poor justifications. Simply put: Eat some nuts, but don't go nuts.