We get asked a lot about fats. Are they good or bad? Should I be eating more or less and how do I know what foods have fat? The fat confusion started with the “fat-free, low-fat” craze in the late 1970’s. In this episode we cover the different types of dietary fats, how much we should eat, healthy swaps and what fat actually does for your body.
Research from the1950’s led to the federal government promoting low-fat and fat-free diets in the 1970’s. Shortly after in the 1980’s, the food industry began marketing these diets. Unfortunately, studies show that we actually developed more obesity in the fat-free boom. The thought was that if the food was fat-free it would not make you “fat” or gain weight. For instance, gummy candy is fat-free, so these diets would essentially not consider those to be an unhealthy food, and possibly a good snack. As you can tell by that, this new system was flawed.
In the late 1980’s, two major reports came out identifying dietary fat as the single most important thing to change in our diets. The food industry began substituting vegetable fats for animal fats and also adding more sugar, keeping the calorie content of the products essentially the same. Remember the “Snackwells” cookie takeover? And Oreos now have a reduced fat version with just 6 calories less because they are lower in fat but higher in carbs compared to the original version. Keep in mind that much of the food industry markets for the sales and not for our health (shocking, we know).
Due to all this low-fat talk for the last thirty years, it is ingrained our brains. We wonder if fat is bad and if eating fat will make us obese. The answer is absolutely not. Fat can actually assist in weight loss. Fat plays a huge role in our bodies. It provides energy, hormone balance, aids in absorbing certain vitamins such as A, D, E and K, helps maintain our core body temperature, proper function of the nerves and brain and maintains healthy skin and other tissues. Dietary fats help the body absorb certain antioxidants known as carotenoids, such as lutein, lycopene and beta-carotene which are found in yellow and orange veggies and that’s why eating a little bit of fat with your salad is a good idea. A simple dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper makes a great dressing with healthy fats. Since milk is a good source of vitamin D, you will absorb more when you drink it with other fats or choose 1% over fat-free milk.
Eating excess calories is what counts for gaining weight. When you do use butter or oil, add it to your food on your plate by the teaspoon, instead of adding large spoonfuls or swirls of oil to the entire dish.
Next, we run through four categories of fats:
Monounsaturated Fats (MUFAs)
These healthy fats are dark gold to green in color, flavorful oils from plant products such as nut butters, almonds, avocados, and olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil.
Polyunsaturated Fats (PUFAs)
Mostly healthy fats that are light and transparent oils from plant products and fish such as seeds, fish, walnuts, pecans, ground flaxseed. Within this group is the ever-popular omega-3 fats plus omega-6 fats. An interesting area of study in the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats in our diet. Studies show a large increase in the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio from 1:1 during evolution to 20:1 today or even higher. A high omega-6 fatty acid intake and a high omega-6/omega-3 ratio are associated with weight gain in both animal and human studies, whereas a high omega-3 fatty acid intake decreases the risk for weight gain. One way to balance out your ratio is to swap out meat for fish 2-3 times a week.
Generally less healthy fats, but the jury is still out on this type. These fats are solid at room temperature and generally from animal foods like cheese, but also coconut oil. Other examples are fatty cuts of meat like ribeye steak, ice cream, butter, sour cream and whole or 2% milk. One meta-analysis of 21 studies said that there was not enough evidence to conclude that saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease, but that replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat may indeed reduce risk of heart disease.
With trans fats, the less you eat, the better! Found as “partially hydrogenated” fats in processed foods, trans fat is found naturally in small amounts in some foods and created in processed foods when vegetable oils are “hydrogenated” to be more shelf-stable. Think snack cakes, stick margarine and bakery goods. Limit trans fat intake to 2 grams a day or less.
Keep in mind that most foods that contain fat, have a variety of types, not just one, and might be quite a bit higher in one than the other. Olive oil for example has 14 grams total fat per tablespoon and of that 2 g is saturated, 2 g is PUFA and 10 g is MUFA.
To include healthier fats in your diet, try these swaps:
Avocados instead of mayo
Pumpkin seeds on salad instead of cheese
Almond butter instead of cream cheese on your bagel or toast
Olive oil instead of butter on your baked potato
Hummus over ranch dip for veggies
Roasted chickpeas instead of chips
Mixed nuts with some dark chocolate chips instead of a milk chocolate candy bar
The dietary guidelines for Americans suggest that 25-35% of your daily calories come from fat, which for most people is between 40 to 65 grams per day. Fats will add up fast and they contain 9 calories per gram so if an item has 10 grams of fat, that is 90 calories from fat. This is where tracking your food, at least until you get comfortable with your eating habits, will help you to keep things in check while also educating you on your actual calorie consumption.