Are 'good' fats making you...fat?
Do you know the calorie content of the superfoods you're eating? Katie Byrne didn't - and gained a stone. Turns out you can have too much of a good thing when it comes to healthy fats
In many ways, I blame Miranda Kerr. When the former Victoria's Secret model said she eats four tablespoons of coconut oil a day, I swallowed her advice whole. Sometimes I ate five tablespoons, sometimes even more…
I also reserve a portion of blame for nut butter advocates. After reading hundreds of health and fitness blogs extolling the virtues of these 'good fat' spreads, I got the distinct impression that I could eat them with impunity.
Rice cakes were generously lathered in peanut butter (a healthy snack according to more than one source); cashew butter was mixed into my homemade energy balls and hazelnut butter was added to my smoothies.
Avocados, another 'good fat' source, were also part of my daily diet. Like many whole food enthusiasts, I ate at least one a day: avocado on toast, avocado in salads; avocado with avocado.
Then there was the 'metabolism-boosting' coffee. A trip to Los Angeles introduced me to the health craze of adding coconut oil and unsalted butter to my morning brew.
The woman in the café said it would "feed my brain" before explaining that the recipe came from the Sherpa people. Once again, I swallowed it whole, without taking the time to compare the energy output of pounding a keyboard versus hiking in the Himalayas.
The Nutribullet was the final blow. It took me three months to realise that the smaller tumbler thingy that also came in the box is for a single serving - I thought it was a lid of some description - and just as much time to realise that only elite athletes should blend 10 ingredients at a time.
You probably know where this is going. Yes, despite learning how to make healthy treats with 'no added sugar' - and proselytising about them with the manic enthusiasm of a street corner soapbox speaker - I put on a stone in weight.
And I'm not alone. Nutritional experts meet clients like me every day; people who simply can't fathom why the weighing scales dial has travelled eastwards when they know how to pronounce quinoa and where to buy cacao.
"I see it all the time," says nutritionist Orla Walsh, who has noticed that the novelty of a new Nutribullet often leads to her clients barely chewing food for the first month of ownership.
"When people go on a health kick, they start getting mad into the trendy expensive ingredients and they believe that the more they add, the better it is for them.
"They forget that a lot of things that are good for you can be nutrient-dense."
Orla brings up a client who became frustrated by her inability to lose weight despite her very best efforts.
"This client had a personal trainer and she was in the gym every day of the week, but she had an unhealthy obsession with health foods.
"She was very anti-carbs but pro-super foods. Yet a lot of the foods she was really enthusiastic about having in her diet were really calorie-dense."
Cork-based nutritional consultant, Mary Carmody, mentions another client who gained four pounds in two weeks after buying a Nutribullet.
"When I examined her food diary, she was loading the almonds into her smoothies," she says. "Instead of putting in three to four (which I had recommended), she was adding 10-plus."
That sounds familiar. I have a tendency to grab a handful of nuts every time I walk into the kitchen. But nuts are good for you, right?
"Yes, nuts are good for you," explains Orla. "Yes, everyone should eat a handful of nuts a day. A handful! Not a handful here and a handful there and loads of nut butters."
Nutritionist and cookbook author Rosanna Davision agrees. "Nuts are easy to overeat when you have bought a bag of them," she says. She also advises caution with nut butters and seed mixes.
"I would only have one teaspoon of nut butter in a smoothie and two tablespoons of flaxseed is a sensible portion to sprinkle over porridge."
Orla adds that micro-portion control is just as important as macro portion control, explaining that a level tablespoon of peanut butter is 100 calories.
I don't think I've ever seen a level tablespoon of peanut butter. I've always added generous heaped spoonfuls of it to smoothies, along with cacao, banana and dates.
On the plus side, I also add kale, an ingredient that I attribute with the power to magically counteract the calorific content of any dish I put it in.
Orla laughs when I ask her if any of her clients have been duped by this nutritional cognitive bias. "I definitely know people who believe that adding avocado to a bacon sandwich makes it healthy."
Our conversation turns to another smoothie that I was drinking twice daily. The ingredients are (deep breath): half a banana, three different types of berry, kale, half an avocado, a heaped tablespoon of flaxseed, a heaped tablespoon of coconut oil, a generous scoop of protein powder and almond milk.
"First, that's really high fat," says Orla at once. "The general rule is one portion of fat per meal and there's three different sources of fat - avocado, flaxseed and coconut oil - in there. If you were my client, I'd tell you to choose one.
"And don't forget that two or three portions of fruit is the equivalent of two/three slices of bread," she adds. "If you're working a desk job, that's too much carbohydrate."
She estimates that this smoothie is almost 600 calories. The same as a Big Mac, I offer. "Well, a healthier version."
To put this into context, Rosanna tells me that she aims for two to three moderate portions of healthy fat a day as she's active. I was consuming her daily fat intake in one smoothie, while partaking in a lot less exercise.
"Think about it this way," continues Orla. "You could have two eggs, a slice of toast, smoked salmon, spinach and a side of mushrooms and tomatoes instead. That would be max 350 calories and it would probably be more filling."
What about 'healthy treats' like peanut butter bites and those delicious Paradise Bars in the Hemsley + Hemsley book? How many can you eat a day or, more specifically, can you eat four in one sitting?
The short answer is 'no', says Mary. "For snacks, I recommend a tablespoon of, say, almond or peanut butter for each snack so you should really be getting the same equivalent in your peanut butter bite etc. My protein balls are about the size of a golf ball and that is sufficient."
Orla says her own homemade healthy treats contain at least 250 calories per serving. That's the same amount as an average chocolate bar.
"If we're honest, coconut oil is still a fat; peanut butter is still a fat and honey is still a sugar," she says. "It's the same, just slightly different. If the healthier version will satisfy you just as much, go for it, but don't have it every day. However, if it doesn't satisfy you, be honest with yourself and go for the treat that you want."
What about the butter and coconut oil coffee, I ask Orla. "Total nonsense." Right...
"Look," she continues. "The key to being as healthy as possible is eating as varied a diet as humanly possible.
"Any one food has only so much nutrition to offer you. When people go on health kicks, they tend to eat one type of protein, one type of fat, one type of carb.
But what about superfoods? Surely we should be aiming to eat these nutritional powerhouses every day?
Not quite, she says. "The truth is that there is not a huge difference between kale and spinach, brown rice and quinoa and agave and honey.
"I would argue that every food is a superfood - it's just that its superpower hasn't been discovered yet."
Rosanna agrees, but she is quick to add that we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater.
"The healthy, whole food movement has benefitted people in so many ways, as we have become much more aware of what's in our food. But I have spoken to plenty of people who overhauled their diet, yet were surprised that they either couldn't shift any weight or they actually gained weight.
"Even when eating healthy whole foods, it's important to be aware of the calorie content of foods and of portion sizes, particularly if you're trying to lose weight."
How to judge superfood portion sizes
Nutritionist Orla Walsh says: "There are very few people who can reduce body fat without considering the portions of what they are eating. I recommend variety so try not to double up on the same food twice in one day."
AVOCADO: A portion is a half to a third, depending on how big the avocado is.
BANANA: Calorifically, one piece of fruit is the same as one slice of bread. Restrict to one or two portions per meal, unless you're very active.
BERRIES: It's very difficult to overdo fresh berries. Enjoy them.
COCONUT OIL: We should have one portion of fat per meal. In this case, a portion is a level tablespoon or the size of your thumb. One tbsp of coconut oil is approx 120 calories.
DATES: Approximately three dates is an adequate portion.
NUTS: Two tablespoons of nuts is equal to one portion.
NUT BUTTER: One tablespoon is a portion and the fat quota per meal. If you love nut butter, try exploring different types to eat throughout the day.
NON-DAIRY MILKS: Only soya milk and milk that comes from an animal are sources of protein. Despite being derived from nuts, nut milk is not a protein source. Enjoy them as a tasty drink but not a protein source.
SEEDS: One tablespoon is a portion. Consider it your fat portion of that meal.