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Retail RDs Educate Consumers on ‘Good’ Fats

By Barbara Ruhs, MS, RD

Retail dietitians face challenges in helping consumers make healthful choices when it comes to dietary fats. Trendy products such as coconut oil, “bulletproof” coffee, and butter from grass-fed cows are heavily marketed for their health benefits—as the latest high-fat, low-carb ketogenic (“keto”) fad diet promises quick weight loss and improved health. Dietitians must rely on scientific evidence to inform their nutrition recommendations and help reduce confusion among clients. This article will provide a brief review of scientific evidence supporting recommendations on dietary fats and offer suggestions on how to best approach educating consumers.

Latest Science on Fats
After decades of nutrition experts promoting low-fat diets, it’s no wonder consumers are confused about fat. A recent survey conducted by the California Walnut Board and Commission showed that the large majority of individuals (89%) are just as worried or more worried about consuming dietary fat than they were five years ago.1 Unfortunately, as dietary recommendations of the past emphasized the reduction of overall fat intake and intake of saturated fat, many consumers avoided many healthful high-fat, nutrient-dense foods, such as nuts, seeds, avocados, and vegetable oils, and replaced them with refined carbohydrates and added sugars.

The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) didn’t set an upper limit for total fat; however, they recommend individuals limit intake of saturated fats and replace them with unsaturated fats, especially polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) to reduce cholesterol and risk of CVD and coronary mortality. There’s a large body of compelling evidence associating increased PUFAs with desirable outcomes in CVD risk, diabetes, cancer, and autoimmune disease. The 2017 American Heart Association presidential advisory echoes the DGA recommendation to replace saturated fat with unsaturated fat and increase intake of PUFAs to lower the incidence of CVD.2 A 2019 Harvard University study published in Circulation Research demonstrated that good fats derived from plant sources vs animal sources were associated with lower total mortality, providing additional evidence that supports the benefits of replacing saturated fats specifically with plant-based monounsaturated fats (MUFAs).3

To promote the health benefits associated with consumption of healthful fats, commodity boards and check-off programs for avocados, walnuts, almonds, and the United Soybean Board support research to back up claims that are regulated by the Agricultural Marketing Service, a division of the USDA. It wasn’t until 2016 when the FDA updated the definition of “healthy” that doors were opened for higher fat commodities comprising mostly unsaturated fats, such as nuts and avocados, to use the term “healthy.” To find research evidence supporting the role of good fats and benefits associated with heart health, diabetes, weight management, cancer prevention, and cognitive and mood disorders, health professional resources are available on the Hass Avocado Board, California Walnut Board, Almond Board of California, United Soybean Board, and Seafood Nutrition Partnership websites.

Educating Consumers
Dietitians are trained to understand the differences between unsaturated, saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated fats; however, medical terminology doesn’t help consumers and usually creates more confusion. The 2018 Food & Health Survey conducted by the International Food Information Council found that only 40% of consumers view unsaturated fats as healthful.4 How do dietitians overcome the obstacle of terminology? Focus on eating patterns, give specific recommendations on types of foods to consume, and highlight health benefits to make it relatable to the consumer’s eating style and personal health aspirations.

The Mediterranean eating pattern is a great place to start in helping consumers embrace a healthful eating style. Ranked as the Number One diet for 2019 by U.S. News & World Report,5 the Mediterranean diet highlights the benefits of good fats found in olive oil and sets the stage for dietitians to educate clients on other food sources of good fats, including nuts, seeds, avocados, and olives.There’s plenty of evidence supporting the health impacts of the Mediterranean diet and its prevention and improvement of CVD.6 The Mediterranean diet pattern doesn’t set a limit on total fat intake and emphasizes consumption of plant and seafood sources of PUFAs and MUFAs, and largely focuses on food recommendations that resonate with consumers: eat more fruits (avocados), vegetables, beans, fish, nuts, and olive oil. In addition, the Mediterranean eating pattern can be easily modified to fit almost all food preferences and health goals. For example, dietitians can advise clients seeking to lose weight to increase their intake of fruits and vegetables, including foods such as avocados and nuts that offer plant-based nutrients and good fats that help maintain satiety. Moreover, highlighting seafood as an optimal protein choice at least twice per week is a way to boost essential omega-3 fatty acid intake for heart health and protect against mood and cognitive disorders, not offered in sufficient amounts in other animal protein sources.

Even though fat is a major source of energy and a component of the majority of foods, less than one-half of consumers are aware that fat is a necessary component of a healthful diet.7 Educating consumers on the role fat plays in human health, such as aiding the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and the fact it’s a vital component of the brain, can help improve understanding and enhance the enjoyment of fat found in foods. Indeed, essential fatty acids, including omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fats, must be consumed in the diet because they can’t be synthesized in the human body. Although the Western diet generally supplies plenty of omega-6 fats, most Americans don’t consume adequate amounts of omega-3 fats, which are found most abundantly in seafood sources and associated with reduced risk of CVD, diabetes, cancer, and autoimmune diseases.

To empower consumers and help them avoid feeling deprived, RDs can make recommendations in the form of simple swaps to help them improve daily intake and overall eating habits. For example, dietitians can recommend replacing butter on toast with avocado slices to boost healthful fat intake. Avocados serve as a whole fresh fruit source of vitamins and minerals as well as dietary fiber. Using crumbled walnuts as a “meaty” plant-based taco filling or opting for a seafood-based burger for grilling are good fat food swaps that most consumers can embrace. Retail dietitians are surrounded by healthful food inspiration in grocery store aisles and are a creative resource to use when it comes to customized strategic solutions for their customers.

To help dietitians educate themselves and consumers on the benefits of good fats, the following resources are available from commodity boards:

— Barbara Ruhs, MS, RD, recently launched MarketRD.com, a consulting firm specializing in retail health strategies and nutrition communications.

* Barbara Ruhs, MS, RD, reports the following relevant disclosures: She receives grant/research support from Avocados from Mexico.


1. California Walnut Board and Commission. For the love of fat. California Walnuts website. https://walnuts.org/nutrition/teamgoodfat/for-the-love-of-fat/. Published 2017.

2. Sacks FM, Lichtenstein AH, Wu JHY, et al. Dietary fats and cardiovascular disease: a presidential advisory from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2017;136(3):e1-e23.

3. Guasch-Ferre M, Zong G, Willet WC, et al. Associations of monousaturated fatty acids from plant and animal sources with total and cause-specific mortality in two US prospective cohort studies [published online January 28, 2019]. Circ Res. doi: 10.1161/CIRCRESAHA.118.313996.

4. International Food Information Council. 2018 Food & Health Survey. https://foodinsight.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/2018-FHS-Report-FINAL.pdf. Published May 2018.

5. U.S. News staff. U.S. News’ 41 best diets overall. U.S. News & World Report website. https://health.usnews.com/wellness/food/slideshows/best-diets-overall/. Published January 2, 2019.

6. Liu AG, Ford NA, Hu FB, Zelman KM, Mozaffarian D, Kris-Etherton PM. A healthy approach to dietary fats: understanding the science and taking action to reduce consumer confusion. Nutr J. 2017;16(1):53.

7. Diekman C, Malcolm K. Consumer perception and insights on fat and fatty acids: knowledge on the quality of diet fat. Ann Nutr Metab. 2009;54(Suppl 1):25-32.