For many years, fats were the bad guy in the health and nutrition world, responsible for obesity, heart disease, and everything in between. But that bad advice has led to decades of misinformation being absorbed by the general public.
There's a long list of foods that many people believe are "good for you" thanks to the anti-fat crusade. Here are seven foods you've probably heard are healthy, but shouldn’t be eaten in excess.
1. Vegetable oils
These include soybean, corn, peanut, safflower and sunflower, because they produce toxic oxidation products when heated, especially over long periods of time. Now that restaurants are switching to trans-free oils, we’re seeing more of these regular oils being used in frying operations. Also, clinical trials have shown that diets high in vegetable oils lead to significantly higher rates of cancer and gallstones, compared to diets higher in saturated fats.
Vegetable oils are relatively recent additions to the human diet: only since the 1950s have we been eating them in significant amounts.
Better options: butter, lard, tallow, coconut oil and, to a lesser extent, olive oil are all more stable at high heats and do not oxidize easily. And there’s no evidence to show that they cause heart disease.
2. Skim milk, because you need the fat to digest the vitamins in milk.
Fat soluble vitamins A, D, K and E can only be absorbed when accompanied by fat (it’s also hard to absorb these vitamins in vegetables if eaten without fat). Also, without the fat, calcium cannot be properly absorbed, but instead forms insoluble calcium soaps in the intestine instead.
Better option: whole milk, which naturally contains the fat needed to absorb vitamins.
3. Low-fat foods generally.
Removing fat from food interferes with flavor and texture, so to compensate, companies must use substances called “fat replacers" — which are almost always carbohydrate-based. The result is that low-fat products, such as peanut butter, salad dressings, yogurts, cookies, and ice cream are almost always higher in carbohydrates — and sugar. A low-fat coffee cake has the same amount of sugar (50 grams) as two Hershey bars — a sugar bomb! Compare that to the regular coffee cake with half the amount of sugar.
Better option: Whole-fat foods, because they generally have less sugar, fewer carbohydrates than the low-fat versions, and high-fat foods don’t make you fat.
These are high in fructose, especially very sweet fruits like pineapple, grapes, watermelon and dried fruits. The fructose in fruit has the same effect as the fructose in high-fructose corn syrup: it goes straight to the liver and provokes high triglycerides as well as other unhealthy blood lipids that lead to metabolic syndrome and heart disease. Go easy on the fruit!
Better options: for snacks, try cheese or nuts.
5. Whole grains
Yes, even whole grains are still carbohydrates, which break down into glucose in the body. Glucose triggers the release of insulin, which is the king of all hormones in making people fat. Clinical trials have definitively shown that people who eat a diet high in carbohydrates, even complex carbohydrates, are at a higher risk for heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
Better option: Skip the grains and have more meat, fish, dairy or eggs instead.
Chicken is fine … but all the time? Chicken is relatively nutrient-poor compared to red meat, which contains iron, selenium, folate, vitamins B6 and B12 … in all, a far more nutrient-dense package than another bland chicken breast. In following the official dietary guidelines, our diets have grown limited.
Better options: branch out and have red meat, or even sweetbreads and liver. There’s no evidence that the saturated fat and cholesterol in these foods will give you heart disease.
7. Olive oil
This oil has been rigorously tested in lots of clinical trials … but researchers still haven’t been able to show that it has some special heart-disease-fighting powers. Maybe it’s nothing so special after all. And here’s a surprise about olive oil: it’s not an ancient foodstuff of the Greeks and Italians, after all. Its use is ancient, but mainly as an unguent to anoint the body.
Better options: For cooking, butter, lard and coconut oil, which are more stable and don’t oxidize as easily. Stick to using olive oil in salads and other room-temperature dishes.
Nina Teicholz is the author of The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat & Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet.
Nina Teicholz has written for Gourmet magazine, The New Yorker, The Economist, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. Her new book The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet is available now.