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Food/Nutrition Columnist Author: Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN, Food & Nutrition Columnist - Last Updated: Sep 7, 2017 - 10:06:33 PM

Does Fat Make You Fat? – Maybe Not

By Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN, Food & Nutrition Columnist -
Dec 4, 2016 - 10:13:14 AM

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( - Tis the season to agonize over indulging in eggnog, holiday cookies and candied nuts. There are, however, an ever-growing group of experts who believe that our obsession with eating too much fat is exactly what has caused Americans to gain weight and has created an epidemic of type 2 and prediabetes over the last 30 years. Maybe fat isn’t so bad for us after all.

The biggest problem with nutrition is that it is a dependent science. It depends on scientific findings which are used to translate into what you should eat. Science is not static. Researchers ask questions, get answers, ask more questions, test the answers and on and on it goes in the quest for absolutes. Sadly, few absolutes are ever found. The public sees all this questioning and investigating as uncertainty because the story appears to be forever changing. The story of fat fits this model.

In the early 1960s two researchers, Ancel Keys and Jeremiah Stamler published results of an observational study of people in 7 countries. They were the first to show a connection between eating saturated fat and cholesterol and the increased incidence of heart disease. The public health message from these finding was to tell people to swap saturated (animal) fat for polyunsaturated (vegetable) fat. This information continued to evolve and in the 1970s the public health message recommended that everyone over the age of 2 eat a low fat diet. The Dietary Guidelines of 1980 and beyond recommended a low fat diet and the food industry responded by producing thousands of low fat foods – low fat margarine, salad dressing, milk, cheese, yogurt and baked goods. Even animals were bred to lower the fat content of their meat. 

In the years between 1970 and the mid-2000s the American diet trended toward a low fat intake. But instead of trading less fat for complex carbs like vegetables, beans, and whole grains, American added more simple carbohydrates like – snacks, sweetened drinks, cookies, cakes, candies, ice cream. As saturated fat intake went down, refined carbohydrate intake went up and so did our weight and incidence of type 2 diabetes. Though we have seen a country-wide decrease in heart disease over the last 30 years, these advances may soon be reversed if our obesity and diabetes epidemics continue.

Enter the current crop of researchers who are questioning the dogma of the low fat diet. Fringe proponents, like Atkins, have always been around advocating a high fat, low carb eating plan. But today, the evidence is mounting that eating too many carbs and too little fat may not be the way to go. Recent reviews of former research, including the Keys’ 7 country study which had many flaws, and newer studies showing little connection between saturated fat intake and all causes of death have called for a re-evaluation of dietary guidelines that suggest limiting fat intake and reducing the amount of saturated fat we eat.

Canada has eliminated dietary recommendations on the upper limit of saturated fat to eat each day. Many countries, including the US have dropped dietary cholesterol recommendations. In the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, public health experts are still recommending less than 10% of our daily fat intake from saturated fat and to select fat free dairy foods. These recommendations are being challenged by current research findings.

Dairy foods and dairy fat appear to have beneficial effects on health beyond the bone-building contribution from calcium. Blood pressure is lowered by eating dairy food, regardless of the fat content. The saturated fat in dairy food appears to lower the risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Cheese consumption lowers both heart disease and stroke risk.

In numerous reviews of past and newer research the current consensus suggests that eating saturated fat does not increase the risk of death from all causes and does not increase the risk of stroke, heart disease or type 2 diabetes. But, and this is an important but, higher levels of saturated fat from processed and red meat are associated with a higher risk for cancer, and higher levels of saturated fats in the blood are associated with a higher risk for heart disease.

The old axiom that you are what you eat, may not hold true for saturated fat because the amount of saturated fat in the blood does not appear to connect with the amount eaten. When we eat more carb than is needed for energy the remainder is converted to fat to be stored for future use. This conversion leads to more saturated fat circulating in the blood. A high carb diet may actually increase the amount of fats (lipids) in the blood, whereas a lower carb diet will decreased them.

So, what does this all mean to you? Our understanding of the role of fat in the diet is changing. It may actually be healthy to increase your fat intake and lower you refined carb intake. Or more simply – an occasion glass of eggnog is not so bad after all.

© NRH Nutrition Consultants, Inc.
Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN is a registered dietitian and the author of 30 books. Available as eBooks from iTunes and Kindle/Amazon:

Diabetes Counter

Calorie Counter

Protein Counter

Healthy Wholefoods Counter

Complete Food Counter

Fat and Cholesterol Counter

Available in print from Gallery Books:

Most Complete Food Counter, 3rd Ed.

Your Complete Food Counter App:

For more information on Jo-Ann and her books, go to:


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