Getting Smart about Fats

By Darlene Kvist, MS, CNS, LN
June 28, 2012


Another news flash just appeared on the morning news: 67 percent of adults are now overweight or obese! We often hear reports that diabetes and heart disease are at epidemic rates in the U.S. You might ask, “How can this be happening because the American public has been on a low-fat diet for the past 50 years?” We were promised that all our health problems would disappear if we followed a low-fat diet. Over and over, dieticians, doctors and food manufacturers have beaten the low-fat drum. As a nation we have substantially reduced our fat intake, but has it worked?

Fat is essential for proper body function

Walter Willet MD, world-renowned researcher and chairman of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, doesn’t believe it has worked. He clearly states, “Low fat diets don’t work.” He goes on to say, “The idea that fat in food makes fat in and on our body is incorrect.” Data from Dr. Willet’s extensive Nurses Study found that there is no good evidence linking dietary fat with excess weight. Instead, he firmly believes fat is one of the most important factors in a person’s health.

What people don’t understand they fear, and most Americans don’t understand how fat functions in the body. If you removed all the fat from your body, as people with anorexia try to do, you would die rather quickly. Your cell membranes, nervous system and brain need fat to avoid collapsing.

Embrace the good fats, fear the bad fats

The fats you choose are much more important than how much fat you eat. Let’s get smart and learn to fear the bad fats and embrace the good fats. A smart consumer needs to know the best fats to eat and the ones to avoid. It’s best to consume a combination of:

  • Monounsaturated fats (olive oil, avocado, peanut oil and olives),
  • Polyunsaturated fats (nuts and seeds), and
  • Saturated fats (butter, coconut oil and palm oil).

All of these fats and oils should be labeled “cold pressed” or “expeller pressed” to ensure that heat or chemical processing has not damaged these fragile fats and oils. Buying organic fats and oils to eliminate pesticide and hormone residue is even smarter. For higher heat cooking, use peanut oil, coconut oil or palm oil. Use olive oil and butter for sautéing on low heat.

Smart consumers of fats and oils avoid all foods that contain refined, damaged oils such as soybean, cottonseed, safflower and canola. Never buy nuts and seeds roasted in cottonseed oil, a highly refined oil. These types of processed fats damage and inflame our cell membranes, which lead to a variety of health concerns including high LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol), cancer, depression, heart disease and autoimmune diseases. Smart consumers also avoid these damaged fats present in fast foods, cereals, breads, box meals, frozen pizza, cake, cookies, margarine and many other convenience foods.

Do not fear saturated fat!

Finally, it is time to get smart about saturated fat. Many consumers still believe the outdated, inaccurate nutritional information about saturated fat from the 1950s. They fear butter and believe the food manufacturers’ claims that margarine is safer. Smart consumers consult more current research and understand that the saturated fats in butter and coconut oil are not the culprits in coronary heart disease. The problem lies with the refined polyunsaturated corn oil and soybean oil that is used to make margarine and vegetable shortening. In fact, margarine—made up of partially hydrogenated oil—increases LDL cholesterol (bad) and lowers HDL cholesterol (good). Butter, on the other hand, actually increases the good HDL and lowers the bad LDL.

Prominent researchers have periodically examined the inaccurate 1950’s nutritional data blaming saturated fat for the increase in heart disease only to find no association between saturated fat intake and coronary heart disease.

  • 1974: Dr. Walter Willet and Associates found “no association between saturated fat and coronary heart disease.”
  • 1992: Dr. William Castelli, director of the famous Framingham Heart Study found, “The more saturated fat one ate, the more cholesterol one ate, the more calories one ate, the lower the person’s serum cholesterol and weight.”
  • 1995: Dr. Walter Willet and Associates stated, “Data do not support the strong association between intake of saturated fat and risk of coronary heart disease.”

To stay healthy, we must rely on more current, well-respected research, not on research funded by food manufacturing companies. Dr. Marion Nestle, author of the award-winning Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, acknowledges that the food manufacturers funding the research are major contributors to organizations such as the American Heart Association and the American Dietetic Association.

Make sure you get enough fat each day

How much fat should a smart diet include? Researchers have found the exact amount is not as important as the quality of fats. I believe most people feel the best and get the best health results when they practice eating all the food groups in moderation, including fats. Researchers have found that getting 30 to 40 percent of calories from fat is considered moderate, while low-fat is 20 percent and high-fat is 60 percent of calories from fat. U.S. government guidelines recommend that 30 percent of daily calories come from fat. As a nation, if we practiced moderation, chose only good fats and avoided all manufactured refined oils and food containing partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated fat, we would be much healthier.

Learn more about the importance of fat

As a nutritionist, I understand why people are confused about fats or even afraid of them given all the contradicting and misleading information in the past 50 years. We devoted a Dishing Up Nutrition episode to this topic, The Oiling of America, with guest author Sally Fallon, which you can hear as a podcast. If you are still puzzled about fats and oils and want to learn more, I recommend two great books as resources: Know Your Fats by Dr. Mary Enig, and Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes.

About the author

Darlene founded Nutritional Weight & Wellness. In her 25 years as a counselor and nutritionist, Darlene has helped so many people change their lives using the power of real food. She is a licensed nutritionist who earned the title Certified Nutrition Specialist from the American College of Nutrition, a prestigious association of medical and research scientists to further nutrition research. She has served on the Board of Dietetics and Nutrition Practice for the State of Minnesota.

View all posts by Darlene Kvist, MS, CNS, LN


Wendy Jones
Hi! This article is very helpful. But I am confused on one particular oil - safflower. I've been binge listening to Dishing Up Nutrition podcasts (and loving them!) and in one episode the nutritionist mentions that safflower is a good oil to use in homemade mayo. But this article states that it is an unhealthy oil. If you could help clarify I'd be grateful! Thank you so much!
May 6, 2017 at 12:38 pm


In the article, we are referring to refined oils. What you need to look for is cold pressed or expeller pressed safflower oil. The type of safflower oil in dressings and mayo that we talk about is expeller pressed. I hope this helps. Thanks for the question!

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