Have you ever sat back and pondered why it is that with all the low fat and zero fat products we can find stocked in our grocery store aisles today, we have an ever increasing problem with obesity? You can visit any of the weight loss social media sites and find people who are making it a point to eat low to zero fat, yet they are having an almost impossible time in achieving their weight loss goals.
This could be seen as quite the irony, right?
Except it is not an irony in any way shape or form.
Dietary fats are not nearly the boogeyman they have been portrayed to be over the past few decades. This is because not all fats are created equal. Some fats are better for you than others, and even help to promote good health. Knowing the difference between your fats can help you determine which fats to include in your diet, which to avoid, and which to eat only in moderation. We know that the “bad” fats such as artificial trans fats and saturated fats, are guilty of the unhealthy things all fats have been blamed for—weight gain, clogged arteries, an increased risk of certain diseases and so forth. But “good” fats such as unsaturated fats and omega-3s have the opposite effect. Good fats should always be a part of a healthy diet. Fat is as essential to your diet as protein and carbohydrates are in fueling your body with energy. Certain bodily functions also rely on the presence of fat. For example, some vitamins require fat in order to dissolve into your bloodstream and provide nutrients.
First, what are the “bad” fats?
There are two types of fats which have been identified as potentially harmful to your health, saturated fat and trans fat . Most of the foods that contain saturated fats should be eaten very sparingly. These are foods where the fats are solid at room temperature, such as:
beef or pork fat
Trans fat should be avoided altogether! Trans fat is short for “trans fatty acids,” this bad fat can be found in foods that contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. These are the worst fats for you. You might find trans fat in:
fried foods (French fries, doughnuts, deep-fried fast foods)
margarine (stick and tub)
baked goods (cookies, cakes, pastries)
processed snack foods (crackers, microwave popcorn)
Like saturated fat, trans fat can raise LDL cholesterol, also known as “bad” cholesterol. Trans fat can also suppress high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels, or “good” cholesterol. Trans fats are also known to increase the risk for inflammation in our bodies. This inflammation can cause harmful health effects that may include heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. If you like margarine on your foods, remember they will contain trans fats if they are made with hydrogenated ingredients, so make sure to always choose non-hydrogenated versions.
Labeling laws allow food companies to round down to zero and claim “no trans fats” or “zero grams of trans fats” despite still containing hydrogenated oils, so ignore the front-of-package marketing and always read the ingredient list.
What started this low to no fat craze?
If you want to trace Americans’ fear of fat, the place to start is the U.S. Senate, during the steamy days of July 1976. That’s when Sen. George McGovern called a hearing to raise attention to the links between diet and disease. The concern was the connection between diet and heart disease. Scientists had evidence that foods with saturated fat such as eggs and meat could raise LDL cholesterol. But there were a lot of complexities that scientists didn’t yet understand, and not a lot of data. When Sen. McGovern, a Democrat from South Dakota, called his hearing, he summoned the likes of Nathan Pritikin, a longevity guru who believed you could reverse heart disease with diet changes. And he called as a witness a Harvard University professor who pointed to the harms of over-consumption of fat. The hearing led to the creation of the first set of dietary guidelines for Americans.
The thinking of the day is that you wanted to reduce fat from your diet. Once fat was identified as being an unhealthy part of the American diet, the thinking was that any way Americans could get fat out of their diets would be a good thing. And this was accomplished by merely replacing milk and cheese and fatty meat with carbohydrates, with pasta and potatoes and rice. The misguided theory was that we would live longer, and be thinner if we took this action.
One of the top goals listed in the original dietary goals was to eat more carbs.
The types of carbs the authors of the guidelines had in mind were whole grains, fruits and vegetables. But this message was lost in translation. What did Americans hear? Fat is bad; carbs are good. And the food industry saw the low-fat, high-carb mantra as an opportunity to create a whole new range of products. Fat-free frozen yogurt, fat-free muffins and cookies became quite common everywhere we shop. The formula was: Take out the fat and then add lots of sugar to make up for the now bland tastes of low to zero fat foods. Now, we are fatter than we have ever been as a society. There were definitely unintended consequences of the original guidelines. In trying to address one problem — heart disease — by cutting way back on fat, the new dietary goals have helped fuel other problems such as diabetes and obesity.
Fats you should be consuming in your diet!
The helpful types of dietary fat are primarily unsaturated fats:
- Monounsaturated fatty acids. This type of fat is found in a variety of foods and oils. Studies show that eating foods rich in monounsaturated fatty acids instead of saturated fats improves blood cholesterol levels, which can decrease your risk of heart disease and may also help decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes.
- Polyunsaturated fatty acids. This type of fat is found mostly in plant-based foods and oils. Evidence shows that eating foods rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids instead of saturated fats improves blood cholesterol levels, which can decrease your risk of heart disease and may also help decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes.
- Omega-3 fatty acids. One type of polyunsaturated fat is made up of mainly omega-3 fatty acids and may be especially beneficial for heart health. Omega-3, found in some types of fatty fish, appears to decrease the risk of coronary artery disease. There are plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids. However, it hasn’t yet been determined whether replacements for fish oil — plant-based or krill — have the same health effects as omega-3 fatty acid from fish.
Foods made up mostly of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature, such as canola oil, olive oil, safflower oil, peanut oil, sunflower oil and corn oil.
Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids include salmon, tuna, trout, mackerel, sardines and herring. Plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids include flaxseed (ground), oils (canola, flaxseed, soybean), and nuts and other seeds (walnuts, butternuts and chia seeds).
How can I start eating healthier?
Focus on replacing foods high in saturated fat with foods that include monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Try these tips to make over the fat in your diet:
- To avoid trans fat, check food labels and look for the amount of trans fat listed. By law a serving of food containing less than 0.5 grams of trans fat can be labeled as 0 grams. Therefore, it’s important to also check ingredient lists for the term ʺpartially hydrogenated.֞
- Use oil instead of solid fats. For example, saute with olive oil instead of butter, and use canola oil when baking.
- Prepare fish, such as salmon and mackerel, instead of meat at least twice a week to get healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Bake or broil seafood instead of frying it.
- Choose lean meat and skinless poultry. Trim visible fat from meat and poultry, and remove skin from poultry.
- Snack smart. Many popular processed snack foods are high in fat, especially solid fats. Be sure to check food labels for saturated and trans fats. Better yet, snack on whole fruits and vegetables.
Be aware and mindful that most foods contain a mix of different kinds of fat and varying levels of each type. Don’t get bogged down in the details. Instead, focus on choosing foods that contain unsaturated fats, instead of foods that contain saturated or trans fats. For example, canola oil contains some saturated fat but is mostly a monounsaturated fat. It’s a great replacement for butter, which contains some unsaturated fat but is mostly a saturated fat.
What we now know!
We now know that, for most people, cutting fat from our diets has failed to help many people in weight loss, nor has this reduced our risk of heart disease. An eight-year trial involving almost 50,000 women, roughly half of whom went on a low-fat diet, found that those on the low-fat plan didn’t lower their risk of breast cancer, colorectal cancer, or heart disease. Additionally, they didn’t lose much weight either.
We know that excess sugar has been linked with weight gain and obesity. A systematic review of 50 years of studies published in the American Society for Clinical Nutrition in 2006 found a link between the amount of sugar-sweetened beverages people consumed and weight gain and obesity. The science base linking the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages to the risk of chronic diseases is clear, yet here we are today with sugar in every damn thing we eat if we are not mindful of our nutrition.
Healthy fats, like those from nuts, fish, and avocados, are good for us, so long as we eat them in moderation. So add them back into your diet if you haven’t already, and look to cut back on your intake of refined carbs and sugary snack foods instead. You will find that healthier food choices that contain beneficial fats will not only taste much better, but you will also notice that you will remain satiated far longer after a meal or snack when you consume them.