More Goodness, Less Guilt: Just Say Yes to Real Food

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

Get ready. We’ve launched into our national holiday season with feasts, festive parties and rich seasonal indulgences. At my house, you’ll find my husband counting down the days when he’ll enjoy his favorite annual pecan pie topped with real, organic whipped cream. 

Would I consider an artificial “whipped topping” if it meant fewer calories? Never. Check the ingredient labels and you’ll see how manufacturers often replace animal fat with corn syrup (GMO alert). How can this be a healthy exchange? Clearly, there’s more to eating “well” than counting calories. 

Now let me tell you the secret of my flaky, tender pie crust: it’s the fat. After years of kitchen experimentation I discovered a tip to blend equal parts butter with lard. When my husband proclaimed the crust tasted just like his grandmother’s, I considered my mission successful. 

Doesn’t a Registered Dietitian write this column?

You’re probably wondering if my professional credentials will be revoked by admitting my preference for real animal fats. Or if I slept through the lecture on the “artery-clogging” nature of saturated fat.

Unfortunately, dietitians have contributed to an overall irrational fear of fat—both in our food and on our bodies. I apologize for our collective ignorance. 

However, I’m happy to report a shift in our thinking. As scientific evidence continues to mount, we’re moving away from total fat avoidance and toward recognizing the important roles specific fatty acids play in our bodies. We’re learning from other cultures, the wisdom of our elders, indigenous diets and toxicologists.

For example, we’ve discovered that not all saturated fats are created equal. While we’re wise to avoid “trans” fats typically found in processed shortenings and margarines, the fat from organic grazing animals contains a healthier proportion of  omega-3 fatty acids, compared to that from animals fed grain, which contains a higher percentage of the more inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. (1,2,3,4)

In a recent issue of the prestigious British Medical Journal, a cardiology specialist provides compelling scientific evidence busting “the myth of the role of saturated fat in heart disease...” The author also reports that specific fatty acids in whole fat dairy products may offer protection against insulin resistance and diabetes. (4)

What’s more, by law organic animals may not receive antibiotics or hormones. Nor can they be given genetically modified or pesticide-sprayed feed. Therefore, the fat, meat and milk from organic animals is less likely to be contaminated with environmental toxins. (5)

At the end of the day, it turns out that all fats cannot be lumped together and considered “bad.” Nor should we put that label on ourselves for indulging in special holiday dishes unique to our cultural heritage. However, I wouldn’t be a good dietitian if I didn’t encourage “mindfulness.” In other words, take time to savor the distinctive flavors of the season. (Eggnog, anyone?) Pay attention to and respect your feelings of hunger and satiety, and take care in choosing organic ingredients – they add extra goodness to your favorite holiday recipes. Remember, when we protect the Earth, we protect ourselves.



1. “Greener Pastures: How Grass-fed Beef and Milk Contribute to Healthy Eating,” Union of Concerned Scientists, 2006.

2.  “The Benefits of Organic Food and Farming: Navigating Headlines, Questioning Conclusions and Calling for Common Sense, Hemmelgarn, M.,

3. “The Grass is Greener: Organic Pasture Perfect for Cows, Humans & Our Planet,” Hemmelgarn, M.

4. “Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Health,” Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health, October, 2005.

5. “The importance of the omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid ratio in cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases,” Simopoulos, A.P., Exp. Biol. Med., June 2008.

6.   Food Sleuth Radio, Capt. Joseph Hibbeln, M.D., June 2, 2011.

7.  “Organic Production Enhances Milk Nutritional Quality by Composition: A United States-Wide, 18-Month Study,” Benbrook, C., et al. , PLOS One, Dec. 2013.

8.  Food and Behavior Research, Capt. Joseph Hibbeln.

9.Adolescent Behavior and Dopamine Availability Are Uniquely Sensitive to Dietary Omega-3 Fatty Acid Deficiency,” Bondi, C.O., et. al., Biological Psychiatry, July, 2013.

10.  USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, National Organic Program, Consumer Information:

11. Mike Callicrate, Ranch Foods Direct, Rural Life Day, December 7, 2013. Jefferson City, MO.

Show Me the Money:

How to Make Your Food Dollars Count Towards Feeding Your Family Well

Share these seven strategies for stretching, but not sacrificing, your family’s food budget:

1. Learn to cook... from scratch. Invest in a basic cookbook and a few good kitchen tools. Cook with your kids to create fun family memories. Think you don’t have time to cook? Here’s my secret: – Prepare extra for leftovers, which you can freeze and quickly reheat for busy nights.

2. Eat at home. Once you learn to cook you can say good-bye to inferior fast and processed foods. They may seem "cheap," but we get what we pay for. People who eat fast food every week are more likely to be overweight and bear the related costs of high blood pressure and diabetes. When we prepare our own meals, we control the ingredients, protect our family’s health, and pocket the savings.

3. Eat with the seasons. If you already have your own garden, you know the fun and satisfaction of producing and preserving your own food. Alternatively, buy directly from organic farmers -- join a CSA, or shop at your local farmers’ market where the seasonal bounty is most nutritious and affordable. Buy extra to can or freeze. Right now, I’m canning salsa and freezing colorful peppers and corn, which will perk up egg and cheese dishes in the winter months ahead.

4. Invest in organic but don’t pay more for “natural.” The organic label is your best legal guarantee for protecting your family against genetically modified ingredients, toxic chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotic and hormone residues. On the other hand, the “natural” label is largely “greenwash,” and means next to nothing.

5. Shop with a list and stick to it. Never shop hungry, and leave impulse buyers at home.

6. Waste less. Americans waste about 1400 calories per person per day. (9) Food is no bargain if it spoils and we end up throwing it away. Make use of leftovers and avoid bulk purchases that could be forgotten or spoil before using.

7. Rethink your budget. Keep a log of your spending to see where your money really goes. Look at organic food like preventive, cost-effective medicine. Make your family’s health your number one priority; nothing is more important.

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