Fats: Where's the Love?

A Firmer Understanding of Dietary and Body Fat

Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.

Each Valentine’s Day, I prepare—from scratch—my husband’s favorite dessert: chocolate cream pie topped with real whipped cream. I’m especially proud of the crust, which owes its flakiness to a mixture of one-half butter, and one-half lard.

You might be wondering why I serve the man I love such a decadent and even dangerous dessert. (Maybe he has a good life insurance policy?)

Let’s just say, I’m a “seasoned” dietitian. In other words, I’m old enough to have seen dietary advice revoked and weight loss diets recycled a time or two. I understand that nutritional science is relatively young, and we’re still trying to figure out how different foods, and more specifically, the combinations of compounds within mixtures of foods, affect our bodies. It’s complicated, and we’ve made some honest mistakes. (1,2,3)

In my father's attempts to reduce his risk for heart disease, for example, he took his doctor's advice to cut back on saturated fat. He reluctantly traded his beloved butter for stick margarine, and switched from real cream in his coffee to a liquid non-dairy creamer. Sadly, he died before we learned the truth: the artificial trans fats in both dairy substitutes were harder on his heart than the naturally occurring fat in real dairy.

Trans fats are created when manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oils in an ironic attempt to mimic the physical and chemical properties of naturally occurring saturated fats. You'll find trans fats in solid shortening, stick margarines, and many commercially processed and fast foods. Check labels for "partially hydrogenated vegetable oils," and leave those products on the shelf.
Despite the common, blanket advice to eat less saturated fat to reduce heart disease risk, we've learned that the effects of particular foods on heart disease can't be predicted solely by their saturated fat content. (4,5) That's because the individual fatty acids within the "saturated fat" group have distinct biological effects in our bodies. There's also insufficient evidence linking the saturated fat in our diets with increased cancer risk. (1,2)

That's not to say we should eat saturated fat with abandon. Rather, we're wiser to focus on the quality of our dietary fats, and the quantity of our portions. (3)
That's why I only make pie on special occasions, and always with organic ingredients.

Why organic matters

Often I'll see a news headline condemning all red meat and dairy products. But an animal raised on grass or pasture is different from one raised on a feedlot with a steady diet of corn. Rarely are those differences accounted for; yet, the pasture-raised animal provides more health protecting omega-3 fatty acids, compared to the grain-eating animal that has more omega-6 fats, which contribute to inflammation and heart disease. (6)

By law, all organic ruminant animals must be pasture-based, and organic livestock must actively graze every day during the grazing season. (7) The nutritional quality of organic butter and lard reflects the higher quality of the organic animal's diet. Because organic animals don't receive antibiotics or artificial hormones, their fat is "cleaner" than that from their factory-farm-raised cousins.

In fact, the President's Cancer Panel Report specifically recommends pasture raised meats and dairy, as well as foods grown without pesticides, chemical fertilizers, antibiotics and growth hormones to reduce our cancer risk. (8)

Diet and Exercise Don't Tell the Whole Story

When it comes to reducing obesity, most of our attention focuses on diet, calories and exercise, which are important. But increasingly, researchers suspect rising rates of obesity are also triggered by common environmental contaminants called "obesogens." (9)

Obesogens include chemicals in plastics, bis-phenol (BPA), scented personal care and laundry products, flame retardants, arsenic and pesticides, such as DDE ( the breakdown product from DDT), and the commonly used herbicide Atrazine. These compounds disrupt our endocrine or hormone systems responsible for regulating appetite, metabolism, and both the size of our fat cells and where they're deposited.(9,10)

For example, approximately 80 million pounds of Atrazine are applied annually in the U.S., mostly in corn-producing regions, where the chemical runs off and contaminates streams, groundwater, and drinking water.(8) Researchers have noticed higher obesity rates in areas where Atrazine is used most heavily. And in a laboratory study on rats, those animals exposed to low doses, but long-term exposure to Atrazine in drinking water had higher rates of insulin resistance, lower metabolism, increased body weight and abdominal fat, especially when consuming a typical high-fat, Western diet.

While we can't avoid all obesogens, we can reduce our exposure by feeding our loved ones organic food, filtering our water, and keeping an eye on the size of our portion of pie.


1.  “The Nutrition Source: Fats and Cholesterol: Out with the Bad, In with the Good,” Harvard School of Public Health.
2. Marion Nestle’s Food Politics Blog.
3. “Rethinking Saturated Fat,” Dr. Andrew Weil. 

4. “Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease,” Am. J. of Clin. Nutr., Jan. 13, 2010. 

5. “The role of reducing intakes of saturated fat in the prevention of cardiovascular disease: where does the evidence stand in 2010?” Am. J. Clin. Nutr., April 2011.

6. “The Grass is Greener,” Organic Valley, Beyond the Plate:
7. Organic Pasture Rule, National Organic Program, USDA.
8. President’s Cancer Panel Report on Reducing Environmental Risk, 2008-2009.
9. “Obesogens: An Environmental Link to Obesity,” Environmental Health Perspectives, Feb. 1, 2012.
10. “Chronic Exposure to the Herbicide, Atrazine, Causes Mitochondrial Dysfunction and Insulin Resistance,” PLoS ONE, April 13, 2009.

10. Healing Foods Pyramid, University of Michigan

To top

Did you know?

* All fats and oils are made up of basic units called “fatty acids.” (10)

* Some, but not all, saturated fatty acids raise blood cholesterol. Stearic acid does not seem to affect blood cholesterol.(2)

* Most of the saturated fat found in chocolate (cacao bean) is stearic acid. 

* Most experts advise limiting saturated fat to 10% of our daily calories. (1-3, 11)
* Oil, butter and lard all have the same calories: 9 per gram.

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