Fat is fine: Reversing a decades-long crusade against dietary fat

May 14, 2016

It’s a difficult fact to swallow -- Americans are heavier than ever. For a number of decades, we’ve been told that dietary fat was unhealthy and eating fat would make us gain weight. Fat equals fat, right? Our guest this week explains that the equation is not that simple. The tide is turning on fat.

Dr. Mark Hyman is a physician, a nine-time New York Times bestselling author, and director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine. His latest book is “Eat Fat, Get Thin,” and that’s what he believes -- we can add fats back into our diet (keeping in mind that not all fats are created equal) and stay healthy. Hyman is the founder and medical director of The UltraWellness Center, a medical editor at The Huffington Post, and has been a regular medical contributor to CBS This Morning and The Today Show.

It seems straightforward. Calories in equal calories out. If we eat less and exercise more we’ll lose weight. It would also seem diving a little deeper only backs up this claim: fat has nine calories per gram, and carbohydrates and protein have four calories per gram. Here’s the catch, according to our guest:

“Just like the Earth looks flat and isn’t -- that isn’t actually how your metabolism works because metabolism isn’t a math problem,” Hyman says. “When you eat calories, they’re not the same as when you burn them in a lab.”

So let’s put those calculators away. Scientifically speaking, eating calories isn’t the same as burning calories. When you eat sugar and refined carbs you increase a hormone called insulin. Hyman calls insulin “a fertilizer for your fat cells.” When you eat fat, though, the opposite happens. Eating carbs and sugars, instead of fat, has been harming us for decades, according to our guest.

When you eat carbs and sugars, Hyman explains, you stop fat burning, increase your hunger and slow down your metabolism. But when you eat fat you burn more fat, cut your hunger and speed up your metabolism.

Not all fat is created equal

“We now know that actually when you eat sugar and refined carbs, that’s what actually causes you to have abnormal cholesterol that causes heart attacks. Whereas when you eat fat it doesn’t do that,” Hyman says.

He says combining sugar and saturated fat is what gets you in trouble and advises his patients and the public to stay away from “sweet fat,” like donuts, french fries, bread and ice cream -- anything that raises your blood sugar (you can check a food’s glycemic index to figure this out). Consider these things a treat, not a staple of your diet.

“What I’m saying is saturated fat is not a health food, but I don’t think it’s the boogeyman that we thought it was,” Hyman says.

Hungry no more

Typically, Hyman says, you don’t eat as much when you’re eating fat. You essentially turn off the hunger switch in your brain. Eating fat satisfies your brain and body in a way that helps you lose weight, according to our guest.

“I think of sugar as a recreational drug,” Hyman says. “It’s not that I never eat sugar or never eat anything with starch in it. It’s just that I know that this is a powerful substance that can actually create an increase in weight-gain, an increase in inflammation, an increase in bad cholesterol, and then I’m careful about it.”

The high-quality diet that Hyman recommends is high in fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, good quality fish and chicken, whole eggs, good oils, avocados, almonds, some grass fed meats; and occasionally starch, grains and sugar.

Dr. Hyman’s diet

“I’m very busy and run around the world teaching, writing, seeing patients and don’t have a ton of time to cook,” Hyman says. “So I make it very simple.”

Breakfast: a fat shake with nuts, seeds, healthy butters, berries and coconut milk OR eggs with stir-fried greens, sliced tomato, avocado, olive oil.

Lunch: a fat salad with greens, crunchy vegetables, olives, avocados, seeds, olive oil.

Dinner: small piece of protein, lots of vegetables; occasionally half a sweet potato on the side.

Dessert: coconut cream and milk, and frozen berries -- blended.