Ask the Expert: Should I Avoid Fat in My Diet? #545 02/06/2014

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Ask the Expert: Should I Avoid Fat in My Diet?

By Denis Faye


The short answer:

No way! Fat is a vital nutrient! Just because it's called "fat" doesn't mean it makes you fat. (On the same note, "fat-free" doesn't mean it won't make you fat. In fact, most packaged goods labeled "fat-free" make up for it with added sugar, which can make you just as fat, if not fatter, than fat can.)

But I digress. At its core, I think this anti-lipid misconception stems from the fact that fat is easy to overeat. It contains nine calories per gram, whereas carbs and protein only contain four grams. Here's how that plays out in real life. Let's say your afternoon snack calls for two tablespoons of peanut butter. If you do it right and use two flush tablespoons, that's 190 calories. But if you get even a little generous with your scoops—and we all tend to be generous when it comes to nutty goodness—two heaping tablespoons will weigh in at something closer to 380 calories. I'd call that a diet-breaker.

So you want to moderate dietary fat intake, but you don't want to eliminate it. It's an essential fuel source you need for almost every human activity, including brain function. It adds structure to cell membranes; acts as a hormone regulator; transports fat-soluble nutrients such as vitamins A, D, and K; promotes the feeling of fullness; and slows the absorption of carbs. Basically, it does everything short of wash your dishes and walk your dog, so you absolively, postitutely should not avoid it.

Your best bet is to get 20% to 35% of your calories from fat. So, for example, if you're eating 1,800 calories, that's somewhere between 40 and 70 grams of fat.

Great sources of fat: Avocado; olives and extra-virgin olive oil; raw, unsalted nuts and seeds and nut and seed butters, cold water fish.

Peanut Butter

The long answer:

Low-fat proponents may point out that your body can convert protein and carbs into fat. In other words, if you're not eating enough fat, your body can usually convert other macronutrients to suit its needs. While this is true, it's naïve to think we should dodge a nutrient humans have thrived on since before we were humans. Dodging fat adds unnecessary tasks to your already overtaxed system (thanks to the modern-world stress and toxins we all have to contend with) and denies you a few fatty acids that your body cannot, in fact, produce.

There are four kinds of fats, or "fatty acids": monounsaturated, polyunsaturated (PUFAs), saturated, and trans. They're grouped this way based on how many carbon atoms in the fat's chain are "saturated" with hydrogen atoms. Monounsaturated fat has one loose (unsaturated) atom, while polyunsaturated fats have several.

In terms of what you should avoid, stay away from man-made trans fat. Small amounts of trans fat exist naturally in dairy and sheep's milk products. The health benefits of these particular fats are controversial, but I don't think it's worth stressing over. However, the man-made stuff, created by partially hydrogenating a fat in order to solidify it, is problematic. In fact, it's a major factor in heart disease. Before it came under public scrutiny a few years back, it was fairly ubiquitous in packaged baked goods and margarine because it increased shelf life. But, in 2006, the FDA made trans fat labeling mandatory, so it's pretty easy to ferret out.

On the other end of the spectrum, there's monounsaturated fat—the golden child of the lipid family. It's been shown to improve cholesterol levels, ward off heart disease, and improve insulin levels. You'll find it in plenty of foods. Avocados, sunflower seeds, macadamia nuts, and olives are particularly high in monounsaturated fat.

Next come polyunsaturated fats. Things get slightly more contentious here. On one hand, omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids—the only two fats essential to your diet because your body is not capable of manufacturing them—are polyunsaturated. These two essential fatty acids play a number of roles in the body, including formulating cell membranes and being precursors to hormone-like compounds called eicosanoids.

Omega-6 eicosanoids tend to promote inflammation, which is important in moderation because inflammation is crucial to the healing process. On the other hand, omega-3 eicosanoids are anti-inflammatory, so they balance out the omega-6s. The problem is, the American diet is packed with omega-6s, which you'll get from many vegetable and seed oils, including safflower, grapeseed, and corn. But we don't get a lot of omega-3s, which you'll find in flaxseed, walnuts, and seafood—particularly cold-water fish like salmon, sardines, and halibut.

French FriesThe downside of polyunsaturated fats (in addition to the whole inflammatory imbalance thing) is that they aren't very stable. When they go off (through a chemical reaction called oxidation, which is the same thing metal does when it rusts) they lose their nutritional benefits—some experts even believe they become cancerous.

So the trick with polyunsaturated fats is to avoid consuming them in overly processed or heated forms and get as many omega-3s as possible, especially fish, which contains the omega-3 fatty acids DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid)—both better utilized by the body than ALA (alpha-lipoic acid), the omega-3 fatty acids that you'll find in vegetable and seed sources.

Finally, there's saturated fat. Some nutritional schools of thought question saturated fat's negative impact on cholesterol. However, there are still very current studies linking it to cancer and type 2 diabetes, making the benefits of this fat a bit of a gray area. That said, lumping all saturated fats together as "bad" may be shortsighted, since an increasing body of research shows that various saturated fats, which are differentiated by the length of their chemical chains, may have different effects on the body. For example, lauric acid (which you'll find in coconut fat) is a medium-chain saturated fatty acid that has been shown to have a few beneficial properties, including functioning better than most fats as a fuel source and raising HDL ("good") cholesterol, potentially making it a "heart healthy" fatty acid.

(Lauric acid's potential ability to increase energy expenditure, thus giving you a little extra boost for your workouts in a calorie deficit situation, is why coconut oil plays an important role in the 21 Day Fix™.)1

The notion that there are many colors in the saturated fat rainbow is backed by a review by the Harvard School of Public Health in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition entitled "Types of Dietary Fat and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: A Critical Review." The review extensively points out the varying effects of the various saturated fats, arriving at the conclusion that "the association between saturated fat and coronary heart disease…was much weaker than that predicted by international comparisons."2

But even though the sat fat landscape is changing, nothing is concrete, so I don't see the point in going coconut crazy. There's no denying that unsaturated fat also has a host of benefits, so you might as well make those the cornerstone of your fat intake and limit saturated fat to around 30% of your total fat intake. And make sure to focus on the quality of your saturated fat sources, particularly organic, free-range animal products, which tend to have a higher concentration of omega-3 fatty acids, especially dairy.

In the past, it's been too easy for diet gurus to point to fat as the evil in any diet. As you can see, our relationship with dietary fat is much more nuanced than that. That may make things a little more complex, but the upshot of weaving good fat into your nutrition plan is that you get to eat things like nuts, olives, and wild Alaskan salmon with impunity—and that makes it worth it, no?


  1. St-Onge, Marie-Pierre, and Peter J H Jones. "Physiological effects of medium-chain triglycerides: potential agents in the prevention of obesity." The Journal of Nutrition 132.3 (2002): 329-332.
  2. Hu, F., Manson, J., & Willett, W. (2001). Types of Dietary Fat and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: A Critical Review. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 20:1 5-19.

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Going Solo on Valentine's Day: 5 Ways to Celebrate Yourself

By Sarah Stevenson

To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.
—Oscar Wilde

Valentine's Day can be so depressing for singles. There's nothing more obnoxious than a whole day set aside to celebrate lovers when you're riding it solo. For years, I rued February 14th for this very reason—until I realized all I needed was a change of perspective. I now celebrate the holiday my way whether I have a partner or not. After all, we're modern folks with no interest in waiting around for Cupid to shoot his silly little arrow just so that we can be happy—so let's get the party started without him!

Woman Holding an Apple

  1. An Open BookBe proactive. Don't spend the big day—or any other day, for that matter—wallowing in "rom coms" or romance novels. You're just setting yourself up for unreasonable expectations if you do. Yes, I know you know that romantic comedies aren't real, but your brain doesn't always know that. The reason these movies succeed is because they cause you to identify with the characters. If you watch dreamy Ashton Kutcher chasing pretty Natalie Portman, you're going to put yourself in one of their shoes and fantasize your way into an unreasonable expectation. Look out for yourself and be smart; don't make the holiday harder than it has to be. You might want to stick to documentaries and Caddyshack marathons for the time being.
  2. Perform random acts of kindness. This is a day to celebrate love and that doesn't require a boyfriend or girlfriend. Celebrate the fact that you have children, friends, and family. Make all the people you love cookies or cards. Have a nice little candlelight dinner with your kids, your siblings, or your parents. Show up at your friends' work with balloons. Put a quarter in someone's meter when they're about to get a ticket. Buy the person behind you at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf® their latte. Even smiling at a stranger counts. Research suggests that when you help make others' lives better, you help increase happiness in your own life. Visit for hundreds of ideas on how to make this world a better place.
  3. Four Women SmilingThrow a "Solo On V-day" party. Take the bull by the horns, my Lone Rangers! Get your friends together and celebrate the connection you have of all being single. I'm a yoga instructor and every Valentine's Day, I teach a totally 80's yoga class. (Valentine's Day and the '80s share equal cheesiness qualities!) I ask each girl and guy to totally dress up in their best neon attire and we get seriously down(dog) to this bitchin' playlist:
    • "Sailing" by Christopher Cross
    • "I Know This Much Is True" by Spandau Ballet
    • "Eyes Without A Face" by Billy Idol
    • "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me" by Culture Club
    • "Save A Prayer" by Duran Duran
    • "Red Red Wine" by UB40
    • "Lady in Red" by Chris De Burgh
    • "If You Were Here" by The Thompson Twins
    • "Time After Time" by Cyndi Lauper
    • "Just The Way You Are" by Billy Joel
    • "Faithfully" by Journey
    • "Lady" by Kenny Rogers
    • "My Love" by Lionel Richie
    • "Truly" by Lionel Richie
  4. It is so, like, incredibly awesome! Instead of sulking around all lonely, we're celebrating our goofy selves. I even have couples who push their Valentine's Day dinner plans so they can join in the fun.

  5. JournalJournal. Journaling is a great way to get what's going on inside your head and heart outside where you can actually do something with it.

    Gratitude Journal. Set some time aside to account for all your loved ones. In your journal, write down all the reasons you think they're amazing. How do they make your life better or easier? How are they unique? What are their positive aspects? Research shows that focusing on positive aspects of life can increase a person's level of happiness and sense of satisfaction.

    Desire Journal. Imagine, if you will, that you could have the "perfect" mate. What internal qualities would they possess? Would he/she be intelligent, attractive, athletic, creative, kind, funny, and sweet? Years ago, I started to do this activity and I found that it allowed me to attract really amazing people in my life. I also found myself trying to build similar characteristics in myself. Birds of a feather flock together. So once you write down all that you want in a partner, build those characteristics in yourself.

  6. Woman OutdoorsTreat yourself like a queen/king. Sometimes it's perfectly OK to spoil yourself. In fact, sometimes it's down right necessary. The truth is, you're worth it! Go ahead and buy that amazing pair of shoes. Eat the chocolate cake that you normally run screaming from on any other given day. Run a hot bubble bath, pour yourself a glass of wine, and soak up some swanky tunes for an hour. You're more vulnerable when you fail to take the time to nurture yourself. Celebrate self-love this Valentine's Day. Celebrate yourself. You're worth it, darling.


  • Anonymous. On happiness and random acts of kindness. Work and Family Life. 2008. HighBeam Research. 19 Jan. 2012
  • Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life. From the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development. JOHN F. MITCHELL, M.D. Am J Psychiatry 2004;161:178-179. 10.1176/appi.ajp.161.1.178

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How to Stop Making Excuses, a Q&A with the 21 Day Fix's Autumn Calabrese

By Rebecca Swanner

Autumn's a petite Italian mom from Cleveland, but don't underestimate the trainer behind the 21 Day Fix™. This single mom with more than 10 years of personal training under her belt has gotten countless clients where they want to go—whether that meant losing ten pounds, a hundred pounds, or getting their body back after becoming a mom.

She's in amazing shape now, but as a teenager, she struggled with her weight and still battles cravings, a tight schedule, and mornings when she just doesn't feel like working out. Get ready to be inspired by the story of our newest trainer and find out how to stop making excuses and start seeing results.

Autumn Calabrese

Ok, let's cut right to the chase. Have you always looked like a model?

No. When I was a teenager, I was that girl with frizzy hair and braces who got picked on all the time…I don't want people to look at me and think, oh you don't know, it's so easy for you. Because there was a time when it wasn't.

Autumn Calabrese Working OutWhen did that change?

I started dancing when I was in eighth grade. At first, it was one or two classes a week, but the next year my teacher wanted me competing, which meant I had to take a certain number of classes a week; the more classes I took, the more I wanted to take. Our teacher would talk to us about healthy eating and not drinking soda and that sort of thing so that we could give our best performances. I remember I cut soda out and three weeks after I did it, I walked into dance class one day and everyone stopped and was like, what the heck? They noticed it overnight. I lost five or six pounds, which on my frame, is a lot! But, they would never talk about you should be "this skinny" or say "you're too fat." I think that made a huge impact on how I work with people. My big philosophy is learning how to eat clean and enjoying everything in moderation.

How do your experiences as a teenager influence your training style?

I'm not the trainer that is going to scream at somebody and be like, do it, do it, do it. I'm never going to put someone down. I'm always going to be the cheerleader for you and encourage you to reach your goals. I've been there. I was the underdog.

How did you get into personal training?

I came to Los Angeles wanting to act and dance. But, I have a bulging disc in my lower spine so I still couldn't dance as much as I wanted to. I could book a commercial, but I could never book a tour. I could never be on Broadway because my back couldn't handle that. I pursued acting and have my SAG card and did a commercial here and there, but I was waiting tables the whole time. I waited tables from the time I was 16 to the time I was 25, and was burnt out. I needed to figure out something else to do. I didn't want to sit at a desk, but I didn't want to teach dance either. I didn't want to get burnt out on it. I looked into personal training certifications, got certified through the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), and started training. Then a couple years later, I became pre- and post-natal certified.

Autumn Calabrese Working OutSpeaking of which, you're a mom. Was it hard for you to lose the baby weight after having your son?

There was a point when I hit a plateau and I was like, OK, this is a bummer, but I stopped making it about the weight and made it about challenging myself in other ways. Could I lift just a little bit heavier? If I was out for a run, could I run a little bit further or a little bit faster? Could I put the baby in the stroller and push him because that's going to give me more resistance? The weight ended up coming off and I ended up five pounds lighter than before I got pregnant.

Did you try and stay fit when you were pregnant?

I worked out throughout my entire pregnancy. I was in the gym in the morning and went into labor that night. I still gained 36 pounds during my pregnancy and I had a C-section. My goal was to get the baby weight off in 12 weeks, but first I had to recover from the C-section, so it wasn't like I could go back to working out the day I got home. But, the one thing I could do was go back to my healthy eating. I was breast-feeding so I made sure I was eating enough for myself and for him, but I made healthy choices. When I could get back to working out, I did.

Wasn't that hard? How did you make the time?

This is the one time you'll see the tougher side of me. I don't have patience for excuses. I've had a C-section, I've had a hernia, and I have a bulging disc in my lower back. For the last 10 years, I've worked 12-hour days. And it wasn't like I only worked out with my clients. I had to find time in between being a single mom. And I still do it. And you can too. You can either make excuses, or you can make results. How bad do you want it? What are you really willing to sacrifice? Yes, there are sacrifices. Yes, there are mornings I don't want to go to the gym. There are times I'd rather eat chocolate cake than broccoli. But, at the end of the day, I love feeling good about myself. I love having energy to keep up with my son. I love when I put on my jeans and they fit or when I put on a tight dress and it looks good.

You're making me want to work out right now. Where did the idea for the 21 Day Fix come from?

Autumn Calabrese Working OutI started working for Brooke Burke's site Modern Mom and picked up some celebrity clients. Then two years ago, I had the "aha" moment that I needed to develop something for my clients where they're going to understand the nutrition side. I was saying, eat three or four or five ounces of chicken. But no one wanted to go get the scale and measure it. I finally sat down with a nutritionist and started brainstorming. We broke down the food groups and came up with 13 different container sizes to fit them. One of my goals was to not eliminate food but teach you how to integrate foods without overdoing it. The goal isn't to be perfect. The goal isn't to not enjoy life. Everyone has to have a glass of wine at some point and a girl's got to have a piece of chocolate. But, the goal is not to do it every single day.

America's problem is we overeat everything…even the healthy stuff.

Not the lack of exercise?

It's both, but I think at the end of the day, in terms of your weight, it's more about what you eat. If you're eating healthy and you're in the right calorie zone, you should be at your proper weight. Exercise will improve your muscles, your flexibility, and your endurance, keep the weight down, and change the appearance of your body. But I see it all the time. Those people who go to the gym five to six days a week but don't eat right are all still overweight. They look the same as they did three years ago. I think looking like you're strong and fit looks better than skinny fat.

What is your cheat food?

I am usually a cookie or a chocolate person. But, I've gone so long now without it that when I have it, the sugar rush is too intense. I get headaches and feel nauseous. But, if it's that time of the month, I want sweets and every so often a piece of pizza, though I don't eat dairy anymore. But, to be perfectly honest, I don't keep crap in my house. I know what my weaknesses are. I know if you catch me in a bad emotional state and there are Oreos in the house, I'm not eating one—I'm eating the entire row. I'll feel sick later and I'll make myself pay for it in the gym, but if it's there, I'm going to eat it. And if it's not there, I'm not going to get in the car, drive to the store, and buy it. So I might go to bed angry about it and be like, I wish I had some damn chocolate, but I'll get over it.

OK, back to the containers. How do they help?

Autumn Calabrese Working OutWe kept them pretty simple. People don't have time to cook gourmet meals, so I based a lot of it on how I had to prep for competition. At the very beginning, it was chicken and Mrs. Dash, 5 meals a day. I was like, OK, I can have turkey, I can have steak, I can have fish. I can buy all the different Mrs. Dash seasonings instead of the same one. Or I can make a stir-fry out of it, I use oil and Mrs. Dash flavors instead of soy sauce. I've gotten creative, but it takes time. In the beginning, it was like, the recipe says chicken, I'm making chicken.

Some people who might want to do the 21 Day Fix have a lot of weight to lose. Any thoughts on how they can get a good start and then stay motivated?

The biggest thing is to have a support system around you. Have that conversation where you say to your household: This is important to me. I'm trying to make a change. I'm not forcing you to do it, but I need your support. Please don't try to push me to have things I'm not supposed to have. Or, if you're the head of the household, you just say, This is what we're doing. I think it's important for parents to lead by example. But, at the end of the day, you have to make the commitment to yourself and the only person you have to report to is yourself. That's a switch that you individually have to figure out how to turn on. Until you can, your weight is going to fluctuate up and down and you'll find excuses. It's 21 days. See where you get in 21 days. You may not be perfect. You might cheat. You might have setbacks. But you also can't let those determine how the rest of the future looks. If you cheat, acknowledge it, figure out what triggered it, and get right back on the horse.

One of the things I loved about the 21 Day Fix was how awesome my legs and butt looked after three weeks. Why the emphasis on the lower body?

The biggest muscle groups are in the lower body, so that's where you'll get the biggest calorie burn. Second, it's important to be balanced in your upper and lower body. And, finally, I'm a leg girl. I'm a dancer. I think strong, toned legs are sexy and appealing. And, a guy with scrawny legs? Come on! You're out. Out! I shouldn't be able to squat more than you.

Click here to check out the 21 Day Fix today.

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Recipe: Healthier General Tso's Chicken

(Makes 4 servings)

Healthier General Tso's Chicken
Order this out and get ready for a hefty helping of saturated fat and calories. Try this healthier version instead and enjoy the taste and just 183 calories per serving.


  • 1 lb. raw chicken breast, boneless, skinless, cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 2 Tbsp. + 1 tsp. cornstarch, divided use
  • 1/4 tsp. sea salt
  • 1 tsp. sesame oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 thin slice fresh ginger, peeled, finely chopped
  • 2 Tbsp. reduced-sodium soy sauce
  • 1/2 cup low sodium chicken broth
  • 1 Tbsp. rice wine vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp. tomato paste, no added sugar
  • 2 tsp. hoisin sauce
  • 1 tsp. pure maple syrup (or raw honey)
  • 2 Tbsp. cold water
  • 2 green onions, sliced
  • 1 Tbsp. toasted sesame seeds
  • 1 Tbsp. dried Thai chiles (optional)


  1. Preheat oven to 375° F.
  2. Line baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside.
  3. Place chicken, 2 Tbsp. cornstarch, and salt in a medium bowl; toss until well coated.
  4. Place chicken in a single layer on prepared baking sheet; bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until cooked through.
  5. While chicken is baking, heat oil, garlic, and ginger in large skillet over medium heat; cook for 1 to 2 minutes.
  6. Add soy sauce, broth, vinegar, tomato paste, hoisin sauce, and maple syrup. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook for 4 to 5 minutes.
  7. Dissolve remaining 1 tsp. cornstarch in cold water; add to soy sauce mixture. Gently boil, stirring frequently, for another 3 to 4 minutes, or until sauce begins to thicken.
  8. Add cooked chicken to sauce, coating thoroughly.
  9. Serve chicken sprinkled with sesame seeds, green onions, and chiles (if desired).

Nutritional Information (per serving):

Calories Fat Saturated Fat Cholesterol Sodium Carbs Fiber Sugars Protein
183 5 g 1 g 67 mg 839 mg 9 g 1 g 3 g 24 g

P90X®/P90X2® Portions:

Protein Condiment
1 1 1/2

P90X3™ Portions:

Protein Carbohydrate Fat
1 1/2 1

Body Beast® Portions:

Proteins Carb Liquid Fat
2 1/2 1

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