Saturated Fat: The Real Story

Question: What's the final word on saturated fat?

Answer: Asking about saturated fat is like asking about the war in Iraq: The answer you get completely depends on who you ask.

Since you asked me, I'll tell you my opinion, but rest assured that if you ask a Stepford Wife Dietitian you'll get an entirely different answer. Of course, if you were the type to listen to those idiots, you probably wouldn't be reading my column.

For years and years the main rap against saturated fat is that it raises cholesterol, which in turn "causes" heart disease. But the importance of cholesterol as a major risk factor for heart disease is beginning to be questioned. And the fact is that saturated fat sometimes raises cholesterol and sometimes doesn't, and ultimately it may not even matter.

In 2008, The American Society of Bariatric Physicians in conjunction with the Metabolism Society presented an entire two day conference in Arizona entitled: "Saturated Fat and Heart Disease: What's the Evidence"? I attended that conference, in which some of the smartest researchers investigating this issue participated, and I can sum up the answer to the question "What's the evidence?" for you in two words: Not much.

In my opinion, the "fate" of saturated fat in the body depends completely on what else is eaten. If you're eating a high-carb diet, the effect of saturated fat may indeed be deleterious, but if you're eating a low-carb diet it's a whole other ballgame.

Hold the hashbrowns

"If carbs are low, insulin is low and saturated fat is handled more efficiently," said Jeff Volek, PhD, RD and one of the major researchers in the area of diet comparisons. "When carbs are low, you're burning that saturated fat as fuel, and you're also making less of it."

So, eat way less carbohydrates and way less sugar, and it may not matter how much saturated fat you eat.

One reason that saturated fat has been demonized, in my opinion, is that much of the research on diet and disease has lumped saturated fat together with trans-fats. Trans-fats weren't even a health issue until relatively recently, and for decades researchers didn't distinguish between the two when doing studies of diet patterns.

Why does this matter? Because manmade trans-fats really are the Spawn of Satan. They clearly raise the risk for heart disease and stroke, and, according to Harvard professors Walt Willett and Alberto Ascherio, are responsible for 30,000 premature deaths a year.

Another reason saturated fat has such a bad reputation is that much of the saturated fat people consume comes from really crummy sources. Fried foods are not a great way to get fat in your diet. Neither is processed deli meats nor hormone-treated beef. But the saturated fat from healthy animals – like grass-fed beef or lamb – or the saturated fat in organic butter or in egg yolks is a whole different story.

I've never seen one convincing piece of evidence that saturated fat from whole food sources like the ones I just mentioned has a single negative impact on heart disease, health, or mortality, especially when it's part of a diet high in plant foods, antioxidants, fiber and the rest of the good stuff you can eat on a controlled carbohydrate eating plan!

So what's the verdict? Though there may be certain cases where saturated fat could be a problem – i.e. those with the ApoE4 gene making them more susceptible to Alzheimer's seem to benefit from avoiding too much saturated fat – for most people a healthy diet of moderate calories that's low in sugar shouldn't have any problem with saturated fat from whole food sources.

Of course that won't stop the diet dictocrats from continuing to tell us how "a low-fat diet prevents heart disease," but inconvenient facts have never stopped the American Dietetic Association!

Real honey
Real Honey

Question: Some people claim honey is a health food. Is it really good for you or is it just more sugar?

Answer: Well, there's two separate questions here:

  1. Is honey good for you?
  2. Is honey just more sugar?

I'll take the second one first. From your body's point of view, honey is sugar, plain and simple.

From the point of view of glycemic impact – how quickly a food makes your blood glucose climb up to the ceiling – it doesn't much matter if you're scarfing down turbinado sugar, "Sugar in the Raw," evaporated cane juice, brown rice syrup, honey, or any of the seventy-gazillion variations on the theme, including, by the way, the latest craze in "healthy" imposters: agave nectar syrup, which has an even worse composition than high-fructose corn syrup!

So, if you're trying to cut out sugar, honey counts. But the first question – Is it good for you? – is a little more complicated and depends on your definition of "honey."

If by "honey" you mean the crap you buy in the supermarket that comes in a cute little plastic bottle that looks like a teddy bear, the answer is "not on your life!"

If by "honey" you mean raw, unfiltered, uncooked, unpasteurized organic honey, the answer is "maybe."

While it's true that both types of honey will raise your blood sugar about the same, that doesn't mean they're nutritionally identical. Raw, unprocessed honey – straight from the comb – has a number of nutrients and enzymes and is an actual whole food, albeit a sweet one. If you don't have blood sugar issues, raw honey can be used judiciously as a sweetener.

Generally speaking, the harder the honey the better. The strength of the crystallization (hardness) determines the level of live-state nutrients and heat-sensitive enzymes. Some unprocessed honey is even sold with part of the honeycomb in the jar. Real honey also contains flavanones, flavones, and flavonols, known for their antioxidant activity.

Two companies producing unprocessed honey that I like are Really Raw Honey and Tropical Traditions.

But remember, processedhoney, like the squeezy bear kind, is just another highly refined food that's had all the good stuff boiled out of it leaving nothing more than a sweet tasting golden liquid that's essentially about as good for you as Frosted Flakes!

Jamba Juice

Question: What's a food that dedicated gym-goers eat that they shouldn't eat? In other words, what's a common "pretend" health food?

Answer: I thought this was a terrific question to put to my informal panel of experts, and not one of them hesitated to render an opinion, all of them good ones.

Gregg Avedon, one of the world's most successful fitness models, singled out sports drinks like Gatorade or Powerade. "They're designed for endurance athletes and pro-athletes who burn crazy calories and deplete muscle glycogen very quickly at a very high level, yet you've got the average fitness enthusiast training at a mid- to low-level range drinking these beverages without thinking twice."

Celebrity nutritionist and exercise physiologist JJ Virgin, PhD, chose energy bars, which are often packed with chemicals and even sometimes trans-fats and high-fructose corn syrup.

Gina Lombardi, host of Discovery Channel's Fit Nation and author of Deadline Fitness, singled out baked chips. "High in sodium, chemicals, and processed carbs!" she notes.

Top New York group fitness instructor, model, and personal trainer Angie Lee chose fruit juice. "Way too high in calories and sugar," she observed, "and people have a harder time tracking liquid calories."

But in my opinion, the Academy Award for health-food imposters goes to the smoothie offerings at Jamba Juice.

Most of them are high-carb, high-calorie, high-glycemic nightmares and will make your blood sugar race to the ceiling faster than a Border Collie on methamphetamine. Example: The banana berry smoothie with 112 grams of carbs and 480 calories.

Don't be mislead by these fake "fitness" foods!

Question: Coffee: good or bad? The experts can't seem to decide!

Answer: It's not exactly that we can't agree on the facts about coffee; it's that reasonable people can draw different conclusions about what the facts mean. It's much like in every other area of life, from politics to economics, but don't get me started.

So here are some interesting facts about coffee: Coffee is a big source of antioxidants. In fact, in one test of the antioxidant power of different beverages, coffee scored near the top of the heap, right up there with tea and grapefruit juice. (1)

A 2001 study in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry found that coffee has significantly more total antioxidant activity than cocoa, green tea, black tea, or herbal tea. And a study published in 2006 concluded that coffee "...may inhibit inflammation and therefore reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and other inflammatory diseases in postmenopausal women."

Two of the antioxidants responsible for coffee's health benefits are cholorogenic acid and caffeic acid. Both are strong antioxidants, and coffee beans are one of the richest dietary sources of chlorogenic acid in the world.

More facts: Caffeine increases exercise tolerance in patients with heart failure. According to the Nurses Health Study, two or three cups a day may lower the incidence of Parkinson's. It decreases gallstone formation in men, and it may protect against alcoholic liver disease. And let's not forget the social benefits of coffee: Without coffee dates, what would all those online daters meeting for the first time do anyway?

So is coffee "good" for you? Let's look at some more facts. Research has shown that even one or two cups of coffee may increase the risk of early miscarriage in normal pregnancy. Three or more cups can seriously increase the symptoms of PMS. And the amount of caffeine in just two or three cups a day can raise both systolic and diastolic blood pressure, at least for an hour or two.

So what's the conclusion? Many of my friends in the natural health world seem to think caffeine is one of the big bad wolves of the modern diet, claiming – possibly with some validity – that it contributes to adrenal burnout, jitters, decreases the quality of sleep and can seriously raise blood pressure in susceptible people.

While obviously it's better not to over-stimulate yourself with 19 venti Starbucks a day, I think on balance, coffee is a perfectly acceptable drink with more in the plus column than the minus column.

The slight increase in blood sugar from caffeinated coffee is a boon for athletes who could use that blood sugar to fuel their muscles. That's one reason why a small amount of coffee before an event is considered a performance enhancer.

One thing though: Coffee is one of the most sprayed crops in the world. If you have the choice, choose organic. But as with most things, the poison is in the dose. If you're practically mainlining Starbucks to stay awake, it's probably not such a great thing. If you're having a few cups a day and it's not keeping you awake or making your hands shake, I think you're fine.

Question: Are there any foods that can help control appetite when dieting?

Answer: There are two ways I know of to help control appetite naturally. One is to be extra careful about blood sugar fluctuations. The other is to eat high-volume, low-calorie foods.

The enemy of dieting is cravings, and nothing fuels cravings like the blood sugar roller coaster. You know what it feels like: You eat something high in carbs, your blood sugar goes up to the roof, insulin comes along and shuffles all that sugar out of the bloodstream 'till it's lower than it was when you started, and now you'll kill someone if you don't get a bagel.

Interesting how you never get cravings when you eat steak and broccoli, isn't it?

So choosing really low-glycemic foods is important. I've had breakfasts based around beans, and I can tell you I haven't been hungry for hours. Anything low-glycemic – vegetables, eggs, beans, buffalo burgers – should do the trick.

And make sure there's enough fat in your meal. It keeps you full longer, a sure-fire way to control your appetite (who wants to eat when you're full?). Eating really low on the glycemic scale should go a long way towards helping control diet-busting cravings and turbo charged appetites.

High-volume foods are foods that fill up a lot of space for very little calories. These foods usually have a lot of water in them – honeydew melon, canteloupe melon, and, the dean of appetite busting foods – soup. For some reason not fully understood, the combination of the liquid and the food in the typical hearty soup is an appetite killer.

You can get the best of both worlds – low-glycemic and high-volume – by choosing soups made from stock and loaded with vegetables, meat, or beans. Other appetite-busting high-volume foods include pumpkin and guava, both of which are loaded with fiber and will fill you up like nobody's business.

Finally, there's no great science to back this up, but green tea sipped throughout the day may help as well. In addition to being thermogenic, there's some anecdotal evidence that about five cups a day really helps with weight loss.

Question: What's your personal favorite high-protein recipe that would be good for a bodybuilder?

Answer: I asked my friend Gregg Avedon about this one. Gregg has been on the cover of Men's Health more often than any other fitness model, plus he's a much better cook than I am. He gave me one of his favorite go-to recipes from his terrific book, Muscle Chow.

Post-Workout Egg Salad Sandwich

  • 6 hard boiled eggs (2 whole and 4 whites) *
  • 1 heaping tablespoon Bookbinder's Chipotle Mustard (or one similar)
  • 1 serving fish oil
  • Dash of ground black pepper
  • Dash of smoked paprika
  • 2 slices Ezekiel bread
  • 1 small box (1.5-ounce) seedless raisins (for post-workout only)
  1. In a large bowl, combine the eggs, egg whites, and mustard. Using a potato masher, mash into small pieces.
  2. Add the pepper and paprika. Stir until well mixed.
  3. Spoon the egg salad mixture onto one of the slices of Ezekiel, top with the other slice.
  4. Serve with raisins on the side to help boost glycogen-replenishing carbs post-workout.

* Now, in my opinion, you can beef up the protein (and the calories) a bit by using six whole eggs instead of two whole and four whites. Gregg calls this recipe truly "food for dudes" because it's so damn easy to prepare, but it's great for women as well.

And if you insist, here's my own (much less creative) favorite high protein snack:

  1. Empty can of Vital Choice tuna or salmon into bowl
  2. Add a stalk of diced celery
  3. Throw a handful of almonds, sliced or whole, onto the fish
  4. Season with lemon pepper, Celtic sea salt, and turmeric, and mix the whole thing up.
  5. Eat.
  1. Pelligrini, Seafini, et al "Antioxidant capacity of Plant Foods, Beverages and oils Consumed in Italy Assessed by Three Different Assays", Journal of Nutrition, 133: 2812-2819, September 2003.