· Photography by Kwaku Alston
Functional-medicine pioneer Mark Hyman, MD, chats with us about the problem with low-fat foods — and the truth about saturated fats.
Confused about which fats are healthy? Join the club. Given the ever-changing mindset about dietary fats, it can be downright confusing to determine which specific fats and oils to actually consume. To help us make sense of it all, we turned to functional-medicine pioneer Mark Hyman, MD, director of Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine and author of Eat Fat, Get Thin: Why the Fat We Eat Is the Key to Sustained Weight Loss and Vibrant Health.
Experience Life | We can all agree now that trans fats are bad, but beyond that there seems to be a lot of confusion when it comes to what types of fats — and how much — to eat. In your opinion, what is the good news about how experts view fat now versus, say, 30 years ago? And what are most experts still missing the boat on?
Mark Hyman, MD | The low-fat era is finally starting to come to an end. The 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines have, for the most part, exonerated fat and cholesterol with no restrictions on total fat or cholesterol in the diet — after 35 years of previous guidelines advising a low-fat and low-cholesterol diet. I think there is still a lot of misinformation floating around about saturated fat. Not all saturated fats are bad, and they’ve somehow been grouped together and labeled as harmful. So, we still have some work to do there.
EL | You used to limit fat in your own diet, correct? Why and what were the health effects of that?
MH | I spent years eating a low-fat diet and recommended it to all my patients. I would tell them to avoid sugars, and eat real, whole foods, but I wouldn’t recommend fat and I would stay away from it myself. Finally, the tide started turning and more research came out about the benefits of fat. When I started to eat more fats, I lost the love handles that seemed impossible to get rid of, my brain became sharper, I was instantly more focused, and I got a six pack without even exercising more.
EL | Even though this year’s revised dietary guidelines stated that dietary cholesterol was no longer “a nutrient of concern” and softened the government’s stance on reducing overall fat intake, there are still a lot of organizations and experts that push the no- or low-fat message. When it comes to fat, why are there contradictory views and recommendations among MDs and other experts?
MH | There is contradictory information because the research is hard to read and, of course, if a study is being performed or funded by someone who has a strong opinion, the outcome is more likely to favor that opinion. The science is often for sale, which is unfortunate. A lot of experts are also looking at outdated research. These are studies in which people who are eating fat are eating bad fats, inflammatory fats, and junk foods. Well, of course, you would think that the fat is bad for you if you’re looking at a study like that.
That’s why I had to really sit down and unbiasedly sift through all of the research and see what was really happening, and that’s why I wrote Eat Fat, Get Thin — because for years we were being fed the wrong information based on outdated research.
EL | Even among those who recognize the virtue of dietary fat, there are still experts who are vehemently opposed to saturated fat. Given the recent studies and meta-analyses that have hinted that it’s refined carbs/sugars and not saturated fats that drive cholesterol — as well as the recent BMJ study questioning the diet–heart hypothesis put forward by Ancel Keys in the 1950s — what is your take on saturated fat and its place in the diet?
MH | Quality becomes paramount here. The saturated fat in a fast-food bacon cheeseburger will have an entirely different effect than saturated fat in coconut oil. I absolutely love healthy saturated fats like coconut oil and grassfed butter, and I think they have a place in our diets. Healthy saturated fats can actually help you burn fat, they make your brain work better and faster, they make your skin glow, and they can help optimize your cholesterol profiles. It is very important that you only include saturated [fat] in the context of a diet that’s very low in refined carbs and sugar and includes omega-3 fats. Saturated fats can improve lipid profiles by increasing HDL and overall cholesterol particle size, which does not promote heart disease. In fact, small lipid-particle size — not LDL itself — is known to be the driver of heart disease. The entire LDL-lowering hypothesis is being questioned by studies including the recent BMJ randomized controlled trial that found that those who had the LDL lowered the most by vegetable oil had the greatest risk of heart attack or death. [Editor’s Note: Learn more in “Rethinking Heart Health.”]
EL | Also, there are various types of saturated fat. Are there distinctions to be made among them? Are there certain types that are worse than others?
MH | The saturated fat in your diet has very little correlation to the saturated fat in your blood. We do know that higher saturated fats in your blood are linked to heart disease. The question is how do you get high saturated fat in your blood? Logic would dictate that it is by eating butter. But biology is not so straightforward. It is by eating sugar and refined carbs. Low-fat, high-carb diets trigger synthesis of the type of blood-saturated fats that are linked to heart disease.
EL | Is there any difference, health-wise and biochemically, between plant-based sources of saturated fat (coconut oil) versus, say, animal-based sources (for example, grassfed beef)?
MH | More and more studies are coming out in favor of the right kinds of meats. With meat, I always recommend choosing organic, grassfed — basically the highest-quality meat you can find. The fats in grain-fed meats or feedlot meats are way more inflammatory. Another concern that is raised is that saturated fat in meat causes heart disease. Yet, interestingly, the types of saturated fats that cause heart disease — stearic and palmitic acid — don’t increase in your blood when you eat meat. Your liver produces these two fatty acids when you eat sugar and carbs. In other words, your liver produces saturated fat from sugar and carbs that causes heart disease.
But I still recommend using meat as a condiment — or “condi-meat” — and filling your plate with at least 75 percent phytonutrient-rich, colorful, nonstarchy veggies. Plant foods, by volume, should take up the majority of your plate.
EL | What about those vegetable oils that some experts have championed? They are mentioned in the same breath as fish oils because both are polyunsaturated, but are they equally healthy?
MH | The very idea that vegetable oils are better than saturated fats (like butter) comes from the belief that they lower total and LDL cholesterol, so they presumably reduce our overall risk of heart disease.
Following this type of advice means swapping out butter, meat, and lard for vegetable oils including corn, soybean, sunflower, canola, and safflower oils, which are all omega-6-rich, inflammatory polyunsaturated fats. Yet if we look at human history, we consumed much more omega-3 fats and much less omega-6 fats than we currently do, since wild foods are very rich in omega-3 fats. The main source of omega-3s today is fish, yet wild game and wild plants, which are very high in omega-3s, used to be a much bigger part of our diet.
Wild meat and grassfed beef contain about seven times as much omega-3 fats as industrially raised animals, which have almost none. Virtually all the beef and animal products your great-grandparents ate were pasture-raised, organic, and grassfed, and they contained no hormones or antibiotics. There was simply no other kind of meat to eat.
Introducing refined oils into our diets and moving away from grassfed and wild animals increased our omega-6-fat intake. Corn, soy, cottonseed, and canola oils skyrocketed, while omega-3 fats have dramatically declined. In that surge, many Americans sadly became deficient in these essential omega-3 fats.
Omega-6 fats not only fuel your body’s inflammatory pathways, but they also reduce availability of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats in your tissues, resulting in more inflammation.
Consuming too many omega-6 fats also increases the likelihood of inflammatory diseases and links to mental illness, suicide, and homicide. In fact, studies have shown a connection of mental health with inflammation in the brain.
EL | So, on a very basic level, what types of fat should we be eating?
MH | The best fats are organic cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil and coconut oil, nuts and seeds, olives, wild fatty fish, avocados, grassfed meats, a little bit of grassfed butter, and ghee. You want to stick with anti-inflammatory fats!
Cooking-wise, ghee, and coconut oil, and avocado oil are best for medium-heat cooking or lower, and olive oil is great for low-temperature cooking, and for dressing food.
This originally appeared in “The Facts About Fat” in the November 2016 issue of Experience Life.