Healthy Fats are Not Total Fat: A Clarification on Templates vs Logging

by Robert Santana MS, RD, CSCS | May 16, 2021

It has come to my attention that there are many people who make claims about the diet while not following the diet. The most common question that I find myself answering pertains to healthy fats and the restriction thereof. To review, fat has the smallest direct contribution to training performance compared to protein and carbohydrate and, therefore, is the first to be reduced when it is time to cut below maintenance calories. This means that grams of healthy fat will be reduced or be nearly vaporized from the planet, and you will soon be hating your coach for depriving you of one of nature’s finest gifts. After all, the first rule of nutrition is: Fat Tastes Good. However, cutting your healthy fats from 60 grams of fat from healthy fats to 10 grams of healthy fats does not mean that you are to eat 10 grams of total fat per day. This is neither practical nor necessary for the vast majority of people. Since this is a common misconception, a clarification is necessary.

First, the food categories contain macronutrients in their titles, which may confuse the uninformed consumer. There is lean protein, healthy carbohydrates, healthy fats, and workout carbohydrates. Each food group category has a macronutrient in the title, and thus, it is easy to surmise that the grams in those columns represent the total grams of the respective macronutrient. However, those columns represent a food group that is predominantly high in the respective macronutrient. Whole grains, rice, pasta, and fruits constitute healthy carbohydrates. Lean cuts of meat (<1-2 grams of fat per oz) and egg whites constitute lean protein and various oils, and nut spreads constitute healthy fats. However, apart from fruits, oils, egg whites, and a few others, most of these foods contain multiple macronutrients despite being high in only one. This means that your healthy carbohydrate sources may contain fat and protein grams, your lean protein may contain fat grams, and your healthy fats may contain protein and carbohydrate grams. Well not entirely. 

As a general rule, if there are ~5 grams or less of the additional macronutrients in the food group then you simply do not count it. Lean protein typically has ~1-2 grams of fat per oz so I’d expect 5-10 grams of fat (~1-2 g fat per oz of meat) per protein serving depending on your allotment, 100% of which does not count against your healthy fats.  If there are more than 5 grams of the additional macronutrients in the food choice, as there are in beans, dairy, and other “combo” foods, then those additional macronutrients are counted towards multiple food groups. So, what gives? How am I supposed to count my macros and log them into the app then? The answer is quite simple: You don’t.

Using diet templates and logging every gram of food into a smart phone app are two distinct approaches to managing your diet. Like most tools of any kind, these tools have assumptions and intended purposes. Barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, and machines all have different purposes and are appropriate for different people who are lifting weights. Dietary tools are no different and understanding this will help guide decisions about which approach is best for the person and context. 

The auto templates are intended for the person who hates being glued to their smart device logging every single gram of food and beverage into an app. This person finds it laborious, distracting, and simply wants to plan his or her meals and eat them throughout the day while preserving mental resources for other tasks. This person essentially wants to eat his or her food with minimal thought beyond the preparation phase. This approach may seem “less accurate,” but it is in fact no less accurate than reading a food label, counting macros, and entering them into your favorite smart phone application (the RP diet app of course). The truth of the matter is that no method of tracking calories or macronutrients is accurate and that includes the food labels that you read at the store.  Therefore, the goal of the templates is to reduce the inevitable neurosis that frequently accompanies data driven diets. Foods are chosen from each allotted group; the foods are weighed out into portions that yield the desired grams of the respective macronutrient listed and this cycle is repeated every 3-5 hours until the end of the day. Carbohydrates are placed primarily around workout times, with more fats in the more sedentary parts of your day, and your protein is spread out evenly throughout all your meals. This teaches you to seek out specific foods and portion them a given way. As you weigh and measure over time, your visible assessment skills improve, and you no longer need to weigh as much. This is much like developing a golf swing, free throw shot, or any other physical skill that requires training to master. The template approach is front loaded a significant time commitment to planning the meals and schedule to build the routine. In theory, these meals will become automatic and require less and less thought and labor over time. In short, you are developing habits and not simply “eating for numbers.”   

Using an app can also have benefits and is another dietary tool in our nutrition toolbox. If you are in a data driven field and love spreadsheets and the perception of precision, then the app is an excellent tool. Data is a way of life for you and estimations are just an abomination that cannot be tolerated. Using an app will accomplish several useful things in addition to complimenting your data driven lifestyle. First, apps often have an extensive library of foods that can be easily looked up and plugged into meals. Apps will tally up the macronutrient for each food and give a complete accounting of nutrient values. This results in concrete totals for carbohydrates, fats, protein, calories, and any other nutrient you are interested in keeping track of. A valid argument is that this approach is equivalent to a training log and some successful dieters still do it the old-fashioned way with pencil and paper using online databases to acquire nutrient values. For some this is laborious and for others it’s a way of life. In contrast to the template approach, the logging approach is less laborious on the front end since the app performs all the computations and provides the library but will require continuous labor in the months or years to follow. Nonetheless, this approach can also lead to the same place of less and less thought and labor over time. It is not “better” or “worse” it is merely a tool that works for different people. 

Now that the pros and cons have been established for both the templates and the app, let’s tie it together and speak about the common goal of both: CONSISTENCY. In an era where diet information is available in grocery store check-outs, social media platforms, websites, billboards, gym bathrooms, other bathrooms, and many other obscure places, it is fairly easy to locate a reasonable meal plan that you could theoretically follow yourself….for 5 days. Then the weekend rolls around and you follow everyone’s favorite diet: The See Food Diet.  Then you restart the plan that you copied of the vibrant and colorful, high definition, Instagram photo in the week that follows only to repeat the cycle until you conclude that “the plan” simply did not work. This is the part where I tell you: you were not following the plan and claiming the plan did not work. 

A diet plan of any type assumes that the person following it is doing so full-time. Part-time dieting constitutes not following the plan. Eating on template or within your macros 6 days per week then drinking 4 glasses of wine, eating a basket of chips with salsa and guacamole, in addition to your normal meals is not following the plan. If you are cutting and you ate 100% of the target macronutrients on Monday through Saturday and all day Sunday but ate a few bites of chocolate, a slice of pizza, and two cocktails for dinner followed by 4 lb weight gain Monday morning, you are not following the plan. If your goal is to gain muscle and you ate all your meals but skipped the casein shake and workout shake without substituting the macronutrients, you are also not following the plan. If your coach lists 10 grams of healthy fats per day and you try to eat 10 grams of total fat per day, you are not following the plan. Non starchy vegetables, which we refer to as “veggies” are also part of the plan. Failure to eat them typically results in increased hunger, and you guessed, unexpected meetings with Triple S: Salt, Sugar, and Saturated Fat, which comes in the form of chocolate, chips, chocolate chips (See what I did there?), wine and other festivities.  Also, not following the plan. 

Now before you run off saying “Santana said I can’t eat chocolate or pizza” understand the context of my words. The plan assumes a high level of consistency in your eating habits. If you must have chocolate in your diet, like I did on my last aggressive cut, then you must plan for it. Some things cannot fit into the plan of a cut and that is fine. Fat loss phases should not last more than 12 weeks anyways so if you must remove pizza out of your diet for 12 weeks because it constitutes 3-4 meal’s worth of calories then that may very well be what it takes. This does not mean go eat an entire deep-dish pie on your maintenance phase, but a slice or two occasionally is unlikely to lead to weight gain and can work for most people on maintenance calories. The only hard-line rule to remember, regardless of which phase you are in, is to plan and stay consistent. So, whether you choose to treat your diet like a training log or just need a general blueprint to follow, remember to understand the intent of the method and, above all else, remain consistent. If all else fails, you can enlist my services and I can guide you through the process by reminding you that you were not following the program while you try to minimize the damage you did during Sunday Night Football.