Fight the Fat Confusion

Food News & Facts

by Alexandra Williams

Swapping "bad" fats for "good" (olive oil, fish oils, nuts) may help reduce cardiovascular events as much as taking statins.

While it may seem as if "everyone" knows to limit saturated fats for health reasons, your clients may not understand what those health reasons are … or what to do next. Recently, Sacks et al. released a new Presidential Advisory published on behalf of the American Heart Association in Circulation reaffirming the evidence of the beneficial role that unsaturated fats-specifically when swapped for saturated fats-may play in cardiovascular health [2017; 136 (4)]. In fact, new figures suggest this fat swap may help reduce cardiovascular events by as much as 30%, on par with the reduction observed from cholesterol-lowering drugs such as statins.

So how do you help your clients use this information, yet stay within your scope of practice? Perhaps a bit of education could do the trick. You can certainly tell them that saturated fat raises LDL cholesterol, a leading cause of atherosclerosis, and that it increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, but be prepared to explain all those terms (or direct them to the AHA website: Help them see the link between almonds and a reduced risk of stroke or heart attack, and they might find fat swaps worth a try. Here are some other fat facts you might share:

  • Saturated fats should make up less than 10% of daily calories, per the AHA (and 60 years' worth of research).
  • Reading labels is smart and makes you look hip and cool.
  • Swap saturated-fat foods with healthy ones, not junk food carbohydrates.
  • Be wary of food trends. The recently popular coconut oil is 82% saturated fat, while canola oil is only 7%.
  • It's not just the obvious things (bacon, burgers, butter) that are high in saturated fat; it's also "hidden" in foods like palm oil, chicken skin, cheese and cream.
  • Be aware of emotional eating, as "comfort" foods tend to be unhealthy foods.
  • A starter list of "better" choices would include canola, corn, soybean, peanut, safflower, sunflower and olive oils; walnuts, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, pistachios and pecans; plus salmon and avocados. Clients can type up a cheat sheet for the grocery store.

(A word of caution: Remind them that people on prescribed statins should stay on them unless directed otherwise by their doctor.)

Maybe you have a texting system in place with your clients. If so, encourage them to send pictures of their "good for bad" swaps. Perhaps you do reward points for prizes, and they can keep a log to turn in. Or have them enlist their family/friends to help them switch to unsaturated choices. Who knows? Maybe their family and friends will become your clients too.

Less Gluten Can Mean Greater Heart Risks

Going gluten-free may prevent you from getting the benefits of whole grains.

In what may be the opposite of what you'd expect, a recent study published in The British Medical Journal suggests that people who don't have celiac disease can increase their risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) if they reduce gluten intake [2017; 357, j1892].

Using data collected from the Nurses' Health Study that began in 1986, a follow-up review analyzed long-term consumption of gluten of over 110,000 people with the development of incident CHD (cardiac disease involving an "event" such as a heart attack). During that time, about 6,500 women and men developed CHD. Participants in the lowest fifth of gluten intake had a CHD incidence rate of 352 per 100,000 person years, while those in the highest fifth of gluten intake had a rate of 277 events per 100,000 person years. Simply put, people who do not have celiac disease, yet reduce their gluten intake in the belief that it's healthful, may be doing themselves a disservice, as the gluten avoiders had a higher rate of CHD. Perhaps this can be attributed to a lower consumption of heart-healthy whole grains. For now, the authors support caution in choosing a gluten-free diet if you're not among the 0.7% of the population with diagnosed celiac disease.

Moms-to-Be: Can the Diet Soda

Water is clearly a healthier calorie-free beverage for pregnant women and their kids.

If you work with pregnant women, encourage them to drink water instead of diet beverages. According to a study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, Zhu et al. found that women with gestational diabetes who drink at least one artificially sweetened beverage a day during pregnancy are more likely to have children who become overweight or obese by age 7, compared to those whose mothers drank water [2017; doi: 10.1093/ije/dyx095].

Pregnant women tend to increase their beverage consumption as the volume of amniotic fluid increases; yet, to avoid extra calories, they may switch out sugary drinks for ones that contain artificial sweeteners. Their attempt to avoid weight gain unfortunately backfires for the babies, who are 60% more likely to have a high birth weight and nearly twice as likely to be overweight or obese by age 7. Luckily, if they substitute water for the sweetened drinks instead, they can reduce their child's risk at age 7 by 17%.

A Neat Trick for Treats

By Halloween of 2022, more sweet things will come in small packages.

A significant number of leading candy companies have committed to offering smaller pack sizes and making labels more transparent, reports [Crawford 5/18/17]. The National Confectioners Association has stated their intent to make 50% of the individually wrapped products they offer available in packages totaling 200 calories or less by 2022. As well, they will print calorie information on the front of 90% of their best-selling products by that date. Consumers should also expect to see a PR push soon that emphasizes that candy is a treat, not a snack or meal replacement.

Edible Origami

Encouraging kids (and their adults) to play with their food could be a good thing for the environment, if it's in the form of edible origami pasta. Starting with flat sheets of cellulose and gelatin, engineers at MIT created a variety of shapes flavored with plankton and squid ink, including horses and flowers. When dropped into hot broth, the cutouts pop into 3-D shapes (see the video on In addition to being fun, origami pasta could help reduce waste. In a traditional macaroni box, 67% of the volume is air. "We thought maybe in the future our shape-changing food could be packed flat and save space," said Wen Wang in a Science Daily interview [May 25, 2017]. The perks would include lower shipping costs and a smaller carbon footprint.

A Diet Twice As Good for Weight Loss, Fat Loss

A vegetarian diet outshines traditional low-cal diets and very low-cal diabetic diets.

It may be time to underscore the benefits of a vegetarian diet for those clients wishing to lose weight. According to findings by Kahleova et al. published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, dieters who choose a vegetarian diet lose weight more effectively than those on conventional low-calorie diets [2017; 36 (5), 364-69]. Not only that, the vegetarian dieters also improve their metabolism by reducing muscle fat.

Seventy-four subjects with type 2 diabetes were divided 50/50 into the vegetarian and control groups, with both following a very low-calorie anti-diabetic diet. Using magnetic resonance imaging, researchers studied adipose tissue in the study participants' thighs, looking for any differences in the three types of fat stored there: subcutaneous, subfascial and intramuscular (that is, beneath the skin, lining the muscles and within the muscles). While subcutaneous fat was reduced about equally by the two diets, subfascial fat was reduced only in response to the vegetarian diet, and intramuscular fat had a greater reduction with the vegetarian diet.

These findings are particularly important for people with high blood sugar. As increased subfascial fat in people with type 2 diabetes is associated with insulin resistance, reducing it could have a beneficial effect on glucose metabolism, better enabling glucose to move from the bloodstream into the cells where it's needed for fuel. Also, a decrease in intramuscular fat could help improve muscular mobility and strength.

If you work with people who wish to lose weight, or suffer from type 2 diabetes or metabolic syndrome, their new motto just might be, "Viva la Veggie."

My DNA Made Me Do It!

Genes that affect behavior may make chocolate more appealing to some of us.

Brain genes may be the reason some clients cannot give up chocolate, according to Spanish research published in The FASEB Journal [2017; 31 (1, Suppl. 299.1)]. An analysis by Berciano et al. of genetic data from 818 men and women showed that certain genes played a significant role in a person's food choices and dietary habits. Higher chocolate intake and a larger waist size were associated with certain forms of the oxytocin receptor gene, known as OXTR. Does this mean it's time for clients to give up and give in to temptation? No, though it may require incremental steps to reduce chocolate intake, rather than relying on willpower.

Can Instagram Help You Eat Healthier?

In a small, yet delicious study from University of Washington, it would seem that posting a visual account of everything eaten in a day can help people stay accountable and choose healthy foods. Using the hashtags #fooddiary and #foodjournal, participants skipped traditional pen-and-notebook methods or modern apps in favor of sharing photos of everything they ate in a day. In a paper presented at the CHI 2017 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Chung et al. reported that the posters felt more supported by their hashtag peers and had a better perception of how much they ate because it was there to see. While the temptation to leave out photos of "undesirable" food was strong, the Instagrammers found that honesty won out in the end. For those who don't want to overwhelm their current followers with photos of food, creating a second account based on targeted, relevant hashtags could be a socially acceptable way of finding like-minded communities.

Asian-Inspired Breakfasts Are Hot, Hot, Hot

Out of 119 types of foods, the National Restaurant Association listed Asian-inspired cuisine as #6 on its 2017 "What's Hot" list. Perhaps census trends showing the Asian population as America's fastest-growing ethnic segment has something to do with it. (It increased 76% between 2000 and 2015!) You can expand your morning menu with these four types of dishes from four Asian countries. Each can be customized with your favorite vegetables, protein sources and toppings (see photos).

  1. China's congee (rice porridge; see recipe at right)
  2. Korea's bibimbap (mixed rice)
  3. Japan's ramen (noodles in broth)
  4. Vietnam's bánh mi (sandwich)

Recipe: Ginger Congee

When she's not teaching yoga classes in Greenwich, Connecticut, Tracy Bechtel is using her skills as a holistic health coach to help people be their best in body, mind and soul. She completed her studies at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition in New York City and is a member of the American Association of Drugless Practitioners. One of her passions is creating recipes, including this Ginger Congee (pronounced "kahn-jee") breakfast that celebrates ginger's healing properties and its strong role in Ayurvedic medicine.

As it takes a few hours to prepare, Bechtel recommends cooking the congee in a slow cooker overnight.*

Ginger Congee
Makes 4-6 servings.


  • 1 large piece of ginger root (about the length of your hand)
  • 5 scallions, roughly chopped
  • 7 dried shiitake mushrooms
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 10 C water


  • 1 C short-grain brown rice
  • 3 scallions, thinly sliced

Topping Ideas:

  • tamari, to taste
  • toasted sesame oil, drizzled
  • certified GMO-free baked tofu, cut into strips
  • poached egg
  • raw baby spinach
  • Asian chili paste
  • gomasio (salted sesame seeds)
  • fried shallots

Wash ginger root well. There's no need to peel the ginger. Cut ginger root into round coins about 1⁄4-inch thick. In a large pot, combine ginger, scallions, mushrooms, garlic and water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain solids from broth, reserving the mushrooms. Slice mushrooms thinly and set aside.

In the same pot, combine broth and brown rice. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer covered for 1 1⁄2-2 hours. Remove from heat and allow to stand for 5-10 minutes to thicken.

Spoon congee into individual bowls. Top with scallions and reserved shiitake mushrooms. Add other desired toppings.

*Slow cooker instructions: After cooking the broth, put broth and brown rice in a slow cooker. Cook on low for 8-10 hours while you sleep! Stir well before serving. Add scallions and reserved mushrooms. Add additional toppings as desired.

For more recipes, head to Recipe used with permission.

Meet our experts

AFM_Author_Williams Alexandra Williams, MA, A writer and editor, as well as a lecturer at UC Santa Barbara in the department of Exercise Studies, Sport and Recreation. She is a vegetarian who cooks and bakes from scratch. Find her at

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