Fight fat phobia

Featured article in the Fall 2016 Issue of Nutrition Close-Up; written by Pamela Hernandez, CPT

In 1976 when U.S. Senator George McGovern convened hearings on the link between diet and disease, he started a chain reaction that led to dietary fat and cholesterol being assigned much of the blame for heart disease and obesity in America. In 1977 the government issued its first call for Americans to eat a low-fat diet. This led to a “fat phobic” diet industry boom in the 1980s, accompanied by a food manufacturing trend that flooded food stores with fat free substitutes for everything from coffee cake to American cheese.

Yet we didn’t get any healthier. According to the Centers for Disease Control, heart disease is still the leading cause of death in the United States.1 Study after study is indicating that we may have gotten it wrong and inadvertently made the problem worse by increasing consumption of refined grains, corn products and sugar. With the updated Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015 -2020,2 the government is trying to course correct, but it feels too little too late.

Most Americans, especially women, aren’t getting the message that fat is not only okay to eat but a necessary part of a healthy diet. The idea that “Fat makes you FAT” is still shaping their dietary habits and stalling their efforts to lose weight and become healthier. Even as the diet industry is swinging now in the opposite direction (butter in coffee?), women still automatically reach for fat-free and low-fat versions of their favorite foods. Well-meaning corporate wellness programs still encourage consumers to limit “fatty foods” and recommend substitutes such as baked chips and bagels as “better for you” foods. Doctors are often unclear on how best to counsel patients on good nutrition for health and fat loss, and rarely take the time to track updates in nutrition science.

That usually means health and fitness professionals have to fill the gaps. Personal trainers, group fitness instructors, and health coaches can do this in three meaningful ways that are still well within their scope of practice.

Share the updated Dietary Guidelines for Americans with clients at every opportunity.

Gone is advice to use fats sparingly. A healthy diet includes up to 35% of its calories from fat sources, according to the Dietary Guidelines.2 For a female consuming 1800 calories a day, that means up to 70 grams of fat per day. The Guidelines still suggest low-fat dairy products as a way to limit saturated fat, so encourage clients to choose these over their fat-free counterparts for satiety and satisfaction.

Teach which foods contain healthy fats and which fats to avoid.

Not all fat is created equal. Foods in their most natural state are always the better option. Our daily fat budget should be focused on a variety of whole food sources like nuts, seeds, eggs, fish and avocados. Be sure to point out food sources of omega 3 fatty acids, which are particularly heart-healthy.2 Teaching clients how to read labels in order to identify and avoid trans fat, which the FDA has unequivocally found to be harmful,3 is a valuable skill that will empower them to make meaningful changes toward a more heart-healthy diet.

Help clients understand the role of fat in the body for health and weight loss.

Fat performs many vital functions that may come as a surprise to clients. Sharing the importance of fat in the diet for utilization of fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin D and hormone production will help them make a positive association with what they may have once considered a forbidden food. Fat also has no impact on insulin production, providing an additional benefit to pre-diabetic and diabetic patients who are trying to regulate blood sugar. Serving as a role model also goes a long way in alleviating fears about fat. Clients often ask me what I eat in hopes of learning a new eating pattern they can emulate. As fitness professionals, we are natural role models for clients, whether we intend to be or not. By consuming whole food fat sources as part of an active and healthy lifestyle, we give clients permission to do the same, further enhancing their ability to achieve the goals they strive to achieve.


Pamela Hernandez, CPT, is an ACSM Certified Personal Trainer and ACE Health Coach. She runs Thrive Personal Fitness in Springfield, MO and is the author of the new book “Motivation Is Made Not Found.” Pamela’s goal is to empower women with fitness and help them take control of their lives by taking control of their health.


1. National Center For Health Statistics. Leading Causes Of Death. Current version 2014. Internet: (accessed 5 August 2016).
2. US Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020. Current version 2015. Internet: (accessed 5 August 2016)
3. US Food and Drug Administration. FDA Cuts Trans Fat in Processed Foods. Current version 16 June 2015. Internet: (accessed August 5 2016) Gregorio L, Brindisi J, Kleppinger A, et al. Adequate dietary protein is associated with better physical performance among postmenopausal women 60-90 years. J Nutr Health Aging. 2014;18:155-60.

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