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Low-Carb Reality Check: Traditional Mayonnaise Is NOT A Good High-Fat Option

I have a confession to make. When I first started eating a low-carb, high-fat diet ten years ago, one of the major go-to fats I included in my diet was mayonnaise. Living in the South, the only REAL mayonnaise to eat is the Duke’s brand. Whether I was making chicken, tuna, or egg salad or dipping my favorite meat and cheese roll-up in it, I was thrilled to have a product that was both low in total carbohydrates and high in dietary fat. All I was focused on coming into this way of eating as a 410-pound man on three prescription medications and on the wrong pathway to getting healthy was limiting my carbohydrates. That was then, but this is now.

In the years that followed and especially in 2011 when I officially shifted to a low-carb Paleo approach, I became more and more convinced that food quality matters just as much as carbohydrate restriction for people who have metabolic challenges that made them obese and sick to begin with. And what that means is that you shift your attention not just to the Nutrition Facts label of whatever food you are eating, but also on the ingredients–something my friends Dr. Jayson and Mira Calton shared in this “Ask The Low-Carb Experts” podcast and in their fabulous 2013 book Rich Food Poor Food: The Ultimate Grocery Purchasing System (GPS) (and they also gave a terrific presentation about how to shop for the better quality food items for people on a low-carb diet in their lecture on the 2013 Low-Carb Cruise).

You might be thinking, “But Jimmy, who cares what the food quality is like so long as it’s low-carb? Isn’t that all that really matters?” I used to believe that and was convinced that limiting my carbohydrate intake was the only thing that was necessary for me to manage my weight and health. However, this is perhaps a low-carb reality check for so many people and an interesting thought experiment to engage in and come to your own conclusion about. This is by no means a settled issue as even several prominent members of the low-carb community disagree about this. That would include me and my Cholesterol Clarity and Keto Clarity coauthor Dr. Eric Westman, MD.

Dr. Westman sees this issue through the prism of an obesity medicine doctor certified by the American Society of Bariatric Physicians who is keenly focused on getting his patients to shed the pounds and improve their diabetes in his Duke Lifestyle Medicine Clinic in Durham, North Carolina. Dr. Westman believes that new patients should first begin by removing the damaging carbohydrates as a means for controlling blood sugar and insulin levels. He believes this is the critical element in getting people back on the road to health again. And I totally agree that finding your tolerance level for carbohydrates is a vitally important factor for his mostly overweight and obese patients to nail down right off the bat. But is it the only thing that matters if we’re seeking to educate patients on making better long-term choices for the sake of their health in the years to come?

This area of disagreement between me and Dr. Westman came to light during a joint Cholesterol Clarity talk/Q&A/book signing event we had in January at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, North Carolina. During my presentation explaining to the audience of 100+ people about the foods that could raise inflammation levels in the body and lead to heart disease, I went on a mini-rant about the inferior ingredients such as high-fructose corn syrup and omega-6 rich vegetable oils like soybean and canola oil that food manufacturers like to put in conventional mayonnaise as an example of a “low-carb” food you probably would want to avoid because it will likely have a negative impact on your high-sensitivity C-Reactive Protein (hsCRP) levels–the key blood test for measuring the presence of inflammation that we discuss at length in Chapter 20 of Cholesterol Clarity on the “Eight Advanced Health Markers You Should Consider.”

But Dr. Westman offered up a more conciliatory response to mayonnaise stating that he would rather his patients eat that instead of processed high-carb junk food or fast food. No doubt. And from the standpoint of carbohydrate-restriction, mayonnaise certainly fits the bill. But after interviewing people like Dr. Kaayla Daniel about the problems with consuming soy and all the known issues with fructose that have been outlined by bona fide health researchers such as Dr. Richard Johnson and Dr. Robert Lustig in recent years, we can no longer give a product like mayonnaise a free pass. Yes, it’s without a doubt a whole lot better than crappy carbage, but does that make it good for your diet? As my friend and New York Times bestselling author of Wheat Belly named Dr. William Davis would analogize, “Are filtered cigarettes healthier than unfiltered cigarettes?” The answer is of course not. So why would we take something that is less bad (mayonnaise vs. processed carbohydrates) and automatically assume it is good?

So what is a low-carber who wants a mayonnaise without these cruddy vegetable oils and sugar to do? Is there a commercially-available version that would be both low-carb and made with high-quality ingredients? The answer is not yet. The Caltons shared with me that they are working on a full line of quality fat-based condiments like mayonnaise, salad dressings (another notoriously horrible product that far too many low-carb followers are eating), and more–COMING SOON! I’ll let you know when these are available for purchase.

Beware of mayonnaise products pretending to be made from better oils such as olive oil because they’re usually a mix of both olive oil and soybean oil like this one from Hellman’s. Some companies are getting sneaky knowing that people are becoming wiser about the games they are playing with these products by claiming to be soy-free, but then they use another stinky oil like canola oil in things such as Earth Balance Mindful Mayo. Read those ingredients labels like a hawk and make the best choice for you and your family.

In Keto Clarity coming in hardback, Kindle e-book, and audiobook on August 5, 2014, we’ve got a fantastic “Homemade Really Real Keto Mayo” recipe to share with you (a reference to the “real” marketing language put on the front packaging of so many packaged mayonnaise products–what exactly is real about it?). In the meantime, I highly encourage you to start making your own mayonnaise by learning how to make your own mayonnaise at home using avocado oil, macadamia nut oil, or other healthy fats and ingredients you can feel confident about putting inside of your body. Here are a few of my favorites from Michelle Tam at Nom Nom Paleo, Bill Staley and Hayley Mason from Primal Palate, Melissa Joulwan from The Clothes Make The Girl, and Sarah Fragoso from Everyday Paleo. Let me know how it goes making your own mayo from home.

Do you still eat store-bought mayonnaise in your low-carb diet? Why or why not? Share your thoughts on this issue in the comments section below.

  • Brian Klein

    Interesting article Jimmy. Once I decided soybean oil wasn’t something I would willingly ingest, I searched, and searched and searched for a store bought mayo. To my knowledge, it doesn’t exist. At least in the stores near me. But then again, I’ve stopped looking. The best commercial mayo I could find is made by Wilderness Family Naturals. I’m sure there are others out there that I’m not aware of. And to your point, making homemade mayo really isn’t that hard once you figure out the emulsion bit.

  • Mark.

    Traditional mayo uses olive oil. I know, you mean the mayo that’s become traditional for Americans. Homemade mayo made with bacon fat is astoundingly good though it hardens too much in the fridge: it’s too bad that pig fat is rather high in omega-6 these days.

    • LLVLCBlog

      We need to hearken back to the original traditional then. :)

  • Hollyanimal

    I’ve bought the hellman’s for my husband (I hate mayo). I’m shocked to see soybean oil listed as the first ingredient! Guess they got me.

    • LLVLCBlog

      They got all of us by marketing the “low-carb” aspect hoping we wouldn’t notice the inferior oils they put in it.

  • Howard Lee Harkness

    All commercially-available mayo (and salad dressings), without exception (that I know of) are produced by outfits that seem to think that industrial seed-based lubricants are food. I wish the Caltons well in their effort to produce a better mayo, but I think they will have an uphill battle getting any market penetration. Like our mutual friend Kent Altena, I make my own mayo. OK, disclosure time: *Georgene* makes the mayo, and does a terrific job of it. She’s made more than 2 dozen batches so far, and has never had a batch to “break.” It’s a simple & straightforward process with a hand blender.

    Kent has a YouTube video on how he does it. Georgene’s recipe is a bit different, in that we use EVOO (I like the taste; not everybody does), avocado oil, and coconut oil plus some salt, vinegar, lemon juice, and a number of spices (we occasionally experiment with the spices). I don’t remember if Kent uses whole eggs, but we do. I do recall that Kent doesn’t use pasteurized eggs. I pasteurize my eggs using a crockpot with an industrial temperature control, basically a home-made sous vide. Other than waiting 2 hours for the eggs to complete the pasteurization, the whole process takes less than 5 minutes, and we usually mix up a little more than a week’s worth at a time.

    I shudder to think how much that would cost from a commercial outfit.

  • Nancy B.

    For my mayo I use a mixture of 1/3 MCT oil, 2/3 mild (arbiquina or ascolono) olive oil and a splash of macadamia nut oil. It’s the best I’ve come up with for texture (when chilled) and taste.

  • http://lchfamerica.com Ellie – LCHF America

    http://beekman1802.com/recipes/foolproof-homemade-mayonnaise/ This is still my fav homemade mayo recipe, with avocado or macadamia nut oil and pastured chicken eggs from the farmer’s market. Amen to this article! Too many just look at the carb count, but don’t look at the ingredients or the nutrition.

  • June

    I go back and forth on mayo. Husband likes store brand and I like homemade but time isn’t always allowing me to do both. Also my refrig is full of small bottles of fermented, and other “new” way of eating foods for me…

  • Sandra

    I would love to make my own mayo–the taste is so much better than any commercial product that I’d have been making it all along regardless of the health benefit–except I can’t make mayo emulsify to save my life! I have watched all the youtube videos, read all the cookbooks, and dammit the stuff just stays liquid!

    Sometimes that’s okay, if I wanted a thin dressing for salad greens, but I prefer to use kefir for a creamy dressing base. I really like mayo for its thicker qualities on sandwiches or chunky salads like tuna or faux-tato or for dips. So…I end up with Hellman’s and just use it rarely. :(

  • Julie Allison Anderson

    I make my own mayonnaise. It’s super simple if you use a stick blender. Plus it’s faster than the drip method (takes about 3 minutes total).

    I have tweaked the recipe around and currently am using 1/2 melted bacon grease from a pastured hog I bought locally (at room temperature) and 1/2 Olive Oil for the fats. For a little tang, I use some of my fermented mustard (many mayo recipes call for mustard). The eggs I use are pastured from a friend. I fell really good anout the quality of my ingredients. After everything emulsifies, I add additional flavorings if I want. Some of our favorites are garlic/rosemary (from our yard) or chipotle.

    Julie aka LizardGurl on WWF

    • Bud K

      That sounds healthy. Maybe more bacon grease for extra cholesterol.

      • LLVLCBlog

        That’s actually a great idea.

  • Haggus Lividus

    EEK! I use olive oil on lots of stuff and it has just as much omega 6 as canola oil.

  • Bud K

    Looks like a safe diet to me!!!
    High protein, low-carb diets can cause a number of health problems, including:
    Kidney failure. Consuming too much protein puts a strain on the kidneys, which can make a person susceptible to kidney disease.
    High cholesterol . It is well known that high-protein diets (consisting of red meat, whole dairy products, and other high fat foods) are linked to high cholesterol. Studies have linked high cholesterol levels to an increased risk of developing heart disease, stroke, and cancer
    .
    Osteoporosis and kidney stones. High-protein diets have also been shown to cause people to excrete a large amount of calcium in their urine. Over a prolonged period of time, this can increase a person’s risk of osteoporosis and kidney stones. A diet that increases protein at the expense of a very restrictive intake of plant carbohydrates may be bad for bones, but not necessarily a high-protein intake alone.
    Cancer. One of the reasons high-protein diets increase the risks of certain health problems is because of the avoidance of carbohydrate-containing foods and the vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants they contain. It is therefore important to obtain your protein from a diet rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Not only are your needs for protein being met, but you are also helping to reduce your risk of developing cancer.
    Unhealthy metabolic state (ketosis). Low-carb diets can cause your body to go into a dangerous metabolic state called ketosis since your body burns fat instead of glucose for energy. During ketosis, the body forms substances known as ketones, which can cause organs to fail and result in gout, kidney stones, or kidney failure. Ketones can also dull a person’s appetite, cause nausea and bad breath. Ketosis can be prevented by eating at least 100 grams of carbohydrates a day.
    (WebMD)