The high-fat, high-calorie foods that you should be eating

The idea that we should limit the intake of all high-fat, high-calorie foods is now outdated and actually unhealthy.

Research conclusively tells us that most plant-based fats and oils should be promoted and encouraged, because adding them into our diet results in significantly better heart and metabolic health.

What’s more, this impressive health benefit is one that few other dietary changes can achieve.

From the literature, I think we can confidently conclude that even eating more fruits and vegetables or more whole grains, whilst still important, is unlikely to give us the same heart health benefits that eating more plant-based fats and oils does.

What are plant-based fats and oils?

Not all plant-based fats and oils are equal, but some examples I encourage are:

  • 30 grams (1 handful) of nuts or seeds,
  • 50mL of most vegetable oils (particularly extra-virgin olive oil or canola oil),
  • 50 grams (or 1/4) avocado,
  • 20 grams of nut spread,
  • If using salad dressings, to opt for full-fat salad dressings instead of low-fat salad dressings, and
  • If not using avocado or nut spreads, to opt for margarine instead of animal-fat or lower-fat alternatives, such as butter, honey or jam.

Will eating these foods make you put on weight?

Research now clearly tells us that the fat and calorie content of a food does not, surprisingly, predict its effect on our weight.

For example:

  • some high-fat, higher-calorie foods, such as nuts and cheese, are associated with less or no weight gain.
  • some low-fat, lower-calorie foods, such as soft drinks and refined grains (like white bread and white rice), are associated with significant weight gain.

Whilst there are a lot of factors at play here, fat is well-known to slow down digestion, and thus changes our hormonal response after eating.

This is thought to contribute to a foods impact on our weight in the long-term, and might be partly why skim-milk or low-fat milk does not appear to be any better for our weight than full-cream milk.

The bottom line

The healthiest way to manage your weight, I believe, is to mostly enjoy a wide variety of minimally processed plant foods, including the plant-based fats and oils listed above.

If your daily consumption of calories is something that needs to be addressed, the first step is eating less highly processed or “treat” foods, such as cakes, biscuits, soft drink, refined grains and confectionary.

The total calories that you consume every day is still important.

But the total calories (or total fat) found in a single food, is not.

Why you shouldn’t eat like Elle Macpherson

One of the main reasons I see for all the confusion in nutrition today?

People seeing association as causation.

Association is 2 things that occur at the same time. This doesn’t mean that one causes another.

Causation is a description of cause and effect. One only happens directly because of the other.

Yes, it’s sunny when you’re at the beach, and raining when your umbrella is up. But going to the beach or reaching for your umbrella won’t change the weather, of course.

If we understand this, why believe that eating how Elle Macpherson eats is the right thing to do?

5 common myths about breakfast

Myth 1. Eating breakfast boosts our metabolism.

The best scientific evidence we have shows our resting metabolic rate is not increased by eating breakfast. Indeed, research shows that even not eating anything prior to midday for 6 weeks straight does not impair our resting metabolism.

Myth 2. Eating breakfast means we eat less calories in total throughout the day.

This is not only unproven, we actually know the exact opposite is true: we eat more. This makes good sense, because when we skip breakfast, we are skipping the intake of a significant amount of calories.

Myth 3. Purposely skipping breakfast is a good strategy for weight loss.

The largest and longest study to compare the effectiveness of skipping vs. eating breakfast on weight found that skipping breakfast:

  • does not result in any significant weight loss, and
  • does not have any significant effect on our weight compared to eating breakfast.

Just because eating breakfast does not increase our metabolism, and can mean we eat more calories in total, does not mean that we should purposely skip it.

Myth 4. When we eat is more important than what we eat.

What and how much we eat is, in my view, what matters most:

  • Whilst breakfast eaters have higher nutrient intakes than breakfast skippers, high nutrient intake is (of course) dependant on eating more nutrient-rich foods.
  • Whilst breakfast eaters have better long-term health than breakfast skippers, good health is (of course) dependant on eating healthier foods.

Myth 5. There is a ‘correct’ time to eat for everybody.

Research shows that one of the most consistent predictors of body weight (outside of genetics!) is the driver of what makes us eat:

  • When we eat in reaction to our external environment and emotions, we are more likely to overeat.
  • When we eat in response to our internal hunger signals, we are less likely to overeat.

Being more conscious about eating according to hunger is one of the most effective strategies we have to prevent overeating.

For me, the biggest problem with advice about eating or skipping breakfast is that it gives the impression we must be eating at a certain time.

In general, we actually don’t.

For most of us, eating is best done by listening to the hunger signals of our body, and not by worrying about what the time is on our clock.

The real impact of grains on our health

If you happen to get your nutrition information from Google, you have likely heard about the idea that eating grain-based foods is detrimental for your health.

Yet a wealth of scientific research actually tells us time and time again that people who eat fibre-rich grains:

You see, fibrous grains, which include wholemeal breads, high-fibre cereals, wholemeal pasta, oats and barley, are minimally processed plant foods that do not only provide fibre, but also:

  • magnesium,
  • zinc,
  • B vitamins,
  • Vitamin E,
  • resistant starch, and
  • an abundance of different antioxidants, too.

What’s more, these health benefits associated with fibrous grains are actually significantly greater than what we see for fibrous fruits and vegetables. This has been shown consistently in the literature for a:

It appears most difficult to achieve optimal health with just the fibre from fruits and vegetables alone.

To best understand the impact of grains on our health, we need to be aware that:

  1. The type of grain matters. Please note that these impressive nutrition and health benefits are mostly or completely absent in refined grain foods, such as white bread, refined cereals, white rice, biscuits, cakes and pastries. When people tell us that carbohydrates or grains are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for us, we must remember that it is far too simplistic to assume that all carbohydrates or grains have an equal effect on our health.
  2. The amount also matters. Just 40-50 grams of fibre-rich grains a day is commonly thought to be enough for these significant health benefits to develop over time. To put this into perspective, this is only slightly more than 1 slice of wholemeal bread, or 1 bowl of oats. The idea that our diets must have grains as it’s foundation is outdated and invalid. We simply don’t have to eat a lot.

But the concern for me is that most of us seem to be falling short of the small amount that is consistently associated with optimal health. What’s more, we are now seeing the popularity of anti-grain fad diets, such as low-carb, gluten-free and Paleo, associated with a further marked decline in our grain intake.

And whilst these fad diets are correct in that we should be limiting the intake of refined grain foods, encouraging a long-term absence of fibrous grain foods from our diet is, I believe, most likely to do more harm than good.

What “everything in moderation” really means

Yes, fruit contains sugar, and a high sugar intake can increase body weight.

But increasing fruit consumption to 2 serves a day enriches your diet with fibre, vitamins and antioxidants, reduces heart disease risk by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, decreases risk of early death by 12%, and does not actually lead to any weight gain.

Yes, grains contain carbohydrates, and a high carbohydrate intake may impair weight loss and lower good cholesterol, increasing heart disease risk.

But 40-50 grams of fibre-rich grains a day (only slightly more than 1 slice of wholemeal bread, or 1 bowl of oats) enriches your diet with vitamins, minerals, resistant starch and antioxidants, actually reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and bowel cancer, plus supports better weight management, too.

Yes, nuts are rich in calories, and reducing calories is the most important dietary factor for weight management. 

But just 30 grams of nuts a day (about 20 almonds, or 10 walnuts) provides unsaturated fats, fibre, phytochemicals and antioxidants, lowers risk of heart disease (by 30%) and diabetes (by 18%), and does not promote weight gain in any way.

Yes, dairy products usually contain saturated fat, which increases cholesterol and heart disease risk in comparison to unsaturated fats, and dairy increases prostate cancer risk too, particularly if more than 3 serves a day are consumed.

But about 2 serves of dairy a day (1 serve is 1 small tub of yoghurt, 2 slices of cheese or 1 glass of milk) is widely recommended as it provides calcium, protein, B vitamins and zinc, does not increase cardiovascular disease (it may actually reduces its risk, especially if fermented dairy foods are eaten, such as yoghurt and cheese), and may help to reduce body fat as part of a calorie-controlled diet, too.

Yes, red meat can increase bowel cancer risk, when 120g or more is consumed each day. 

But 120g of red meat (red meat includes beef, lamb and pork, and 120g is about the amount of 1 regular steak) consumed no more than 3-4 times a week provides easily absorbed iron, protein, zinc and B vitamins, does not increase heart disease risk when trimmed of visible fat, and, due to its impressive nutrient profile, may help with both weight management and meeting nutrient requirements on a calorie-controlled diet, positively affecting health.

Yes, coffee is rich in caffeine, which often leads to anxiety, insomnia and palpitations, in excess.

But 2-3 cups of coffee a day is not only safe for most adults, it reduces diabetes risk by 20%, and has no negative effects on long-term blood pressure or heart disease risk.

Yes, 2 or more standard drinks of alcohol a day increases blood pressure and the risk of oesophageal, bowel, liver, breast, prostate and pancreatic cancer, plus stroke and premature death.

But about 1 standard drink of alcohol on most days is not only safe, it is actually associated with a 29% reduced risk of heart disease compared to not drinking any alcohol at all.

Yes, confectionary and highly processed foods contain refined sugars, starches, salt, or saturated fat, directly contributing to poor health and lasting disease in excess.

But when no more than 500-1000kJ is consumed (500kJ is about 2 small scoops of ice cream, 6 small lollies or 1 small doughnut), it is not only compatible with healthy living, it can also provide you with satisfaction and joy, which quite ironically, in this way may actually reduce your likelihood of overeating calories and gaining weight and improve your immune functioning and physical health.

Notice, then, how it is the amount of food we eat, and not so much the food itself, that determines its health effect.

Whilst fad diets talk to us about good or bad and all or nothing, evidenced-based nutrition promotes the concepts of moderation and balance. It argues “everything in moderation” because it demonstrates that it is actually the amount that matters most.

The challenge today is how to separate fad diets from good nutrition, so that we have an informed understanding about where the healthiest ranges actually exist.

So to help make it slightly easier for you: in all my time spent reading the literature, never have I seen the healthiest range for a whole food group or major nutrient exist only at zero.

One simple solution for feeling fuller

There is sound and consistent evidence that including protein in our meal can help us to feel fuller and better manage our weight.

Indeed, research suggests a higher protein diet may be one of the best dietary strategies for long term weight maintenance.

My experience is that whilst we are good at including a protein source at dinner, we too often skip protein at breakfast, and occasionally lunch too.

Some ways to include nutritious protein sources in our meals are:

  • Greek yoghurt with fruit and either muesli or a high fibre cereal,
  • Eggs or baked beans on wholemeal toast with vegetables, such as tomato and spinach,
  • Tuna or egg with a multi-grain salad sandwich,
  • Chicken or lean beef with a vegetable soup,
  • Legumes (beans and pulses like kidney beans, lentils or chick peas) at dinner, particularly if we are vegetarian or not eating meat (although they make for a great addition anyway), and
  • A small tub of yoghurt or a handful of nuts as a snack if we are hungry in between meals.

Note the goal is not to eat as much protein as possible, nor to eat just any food that contains protein.

Instead, it is about making sure we consciously include a nutritious protein source with each meal.

Is eating low-fat an effective way to lose weight?

Research has shown the low-fat diet can fare worse for weight loss when compared to numerous other diets, including:

One of the biggest developments in nutrition science is this: the conventional low-fat diet may be one of the least effective dietary strategies to both manage your weight and promote good health.

Why? The unifying theme that explains the advantage of each of the other diets is simple: they reduce the intake of carbohydrate-rich foods that are highly refined and low in nutrients. When we eat low-fat, we more often than not default to these sorts of foods.

Note that these foods include some sugary foods such as soft drinks, juices and confectionary. But they also include some starchy foods such as refined grains and flours like white bread, white rice, refined cereals and refined crackers. The constant spike in our blood sugar that a high consumption of these foods produce results in significantly poorer health over time, except in the leanest and most active of individuals.

Of course, it is far too simplistic to say that all carbohydrate-rich foods result in weight gain and poor health.

A vegetarian diet, for example, is typically a low-fat, high carbohydrate diet. It is consistently associated with lower body weight and better health. A key difference is the quality of the carbohydrates eaten. The vegetarian diet is typically rich in carbohydrates from minimally processed plant foods, such as legumes, fruits, starchy vegetables and fibrous grains.

The problem is not carbohydrates per se, but that the quality of our carbohydrate choices today are usually poor.

Sure, enjoy some highly refined and nutrient poor low-fat foods for enjoyments sake.

But please don’t eat large amounts of them because you think they are helping you to lose weight.

5 foods almost all of us need to eat more of

1. Vegetables
2. Fruits
3. Fibrous grains (such as oats, wholemeal bread and high fibre cereals)
4. Legumes (beans and pulses such as baked beans, kidney beans and lentils)
5. Nuts & seeds.

Each of these foods truly nourish our body and research shows time and again that their consumption is strongly linked to our health.

Notice they are not all low in fat, low in sugar, low in calories or low in carbohydrates.

But they are all minimally processed plant foods that together form the base of a diet rich in quality fats, quality carbohydrates, dietary fibre, resistant starch, vitamins, minerals and an array of different antioxidants.

When we eat them consistently we improve the way our body functions right down to the cellular level, and in this way not only benefit today, but markedly reduce our long-term risk of weight gain, heart disease and diabetes too.

Enjoy all foods. Especially plants.

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