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Want to Get Slim? Eat Some Fat, Experts Say

By Serena Solomon | April 17, 2014 7:00am
 New Yorkers are shedding their fear that eating fat will make them fat.
Shedding Fat Fears
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NEW YORK CITY — In the last few months Kristin Olenik, 26, a leggy model with a 24-inch waist, did something she never thought she would do.

She upped the fat in her diet.

Olenik swapped out zero-fat yogurt for the whole milk version. Instead of rice cakes, she now snacks on nuts. And she doesn't mind eating the skin on her chicken.

"Now, I realize that in order to get food to be fat-free or 2 percent, it undergoes a process to get that way and it is not a natural process," said Olenik, who lives in Chelsea and is a food coach in training.

Olenik is one of many embracing a nutritional philosophy that celebrates the benefits of fat, marking a dramatic shift from dieting rules that have been popular since the 1980s.

While those deep in the nutrition industry have for years been heralding the benefits of a diet rich in good fats, New Yorkers are just beginning to shed their fear that it will pile on the pounds.

Even saturated fats like those from animals — which are often grouped in the "bad fats" category — are getting an improved reputation with new research questioning its link to heart disease.

"It's like an arachnophobia of fat," said Lauren Antonucci, a Midtown dietitian and nutritionist for 11 years. "Some people have just developed this intense fear of [fatty] food."

Antonucci said that her clients' fat fears typically come from two avenues. Some have high cholesterol or have a family history of heart disease and have been ordered to steer clear of all fats. Others have held strong to a calorie-counting habit for years and wrote fat off for its high calorie content. 

"[Calorie counters are] a much harder group to convince that fats from avocado, nuts and seeds are healthy and will improve all aspects of their lives," said Antonucci.

Registered dietitian Lisa Moskovitz, who is also based in Midtown, advises her clients that 30 percent of their diet should be fat with the majority of that coming from the omega 3 fatty acids, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats — a group known as the "good fats."

This type of fat stabilizes blood sugar levels and decreases inflammation, she said.

It can also help a client lose weight by increasing the leptin hormone, which plays a role in suppressing appetites, according to Moskovitz.  

"[Fat] has a lot of staying power, so it takes longer to digest and it stays in your stomach longer than carbs," she said. "It helps because when you are satisfying your hunger, you are not constantly searching for food."

Despite more fat, Olenik said she maintained her normal weight — dropping pounds wasn't her goal — but she did notice higher energy levels and more radiant skin.

As for saturated fat, which is mainly from animals, the wheels of research are turning in its favor. In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, food columnist Mark Bittman cited a new review from the Annals of Internal Medicine — which questioned the long held belief that saturated fats cause heart disease — to declare "butter is back."

But not all experts are convinced.

Maria Bella, a dietitian at Top Balance Nutrition in Midtown, said the research into animal fats is still new. She advises clients "to stay on the side of caution and select the leanest cuts of meat and low fat dairy."

Still, Robyn Youkilis, 34, a certified wellness and healthy cooking coach in the East Village, said the difference between her diet now and her previous low-fat diet makes her unwilling to ever go back.

"In high school I thought, 'Well I can have one or two of my mom's cookies or this entire box because there is no fat,'" she said.

But the philosophy "completely screwed up" her diet and confused her body, she said.

It wasn't until she was studying nutrition five years ago that Youkilis began chipping away at her fat fear.

"Slowly over time, just by adding a little bit at a time, and now I have no fear of fat," she said.

Youkilis, who describes her current diet as "paleo-ish," began by cooking eggs in coconut oil and roasting vegetables in olive oil. Dairy including full fat is still a constant experiment.

But a positive spin on fat is not an excuse to open the floodgates, warned Youkilis. Processed and sugary foods need to be limited, and tabs need to be kept on the size of fat servings.

"Nuts are not popcorn," Youkilis said, adding that a serving is about eight or ten nuts and for olive oil it is about a tablespoon.

"I'm mindful not to go crazy," she said.