For years, we all thought we should avoid fat in our diet because it's fat that makes you fat. It was easy to believe since it was all in the name: fat. Who wants to eat what they don't want to become? It seems that all problems would be solved if we could eliminate fat from our diets, but it doesn't work that way.
Our bodies need fats--we can't live without them. Unlike carbohydrates, which are virtually eliminated in the recently popular keto diet (where fats make up around 70% of the nutrients), we need this macronutrient to survive. Fats are an essential part of our food; they provide essential fatty acids, deliver fat-soluble vitamins, and are an excellent source of fuel and satiety.
In fact, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture do not encourage a low-fat diet (meaning low in total fats) and instead encourages Americans to consume upwards of 35% of total calories per day from fat.
The problem is that the average American consumes a lot more than 35% of daily calories from fat. Why? Because fat improves flavor and increases the feeling of fullness. Unfortunately, it is also widely available in our food supply and not always in the best form.
What is important is that we learn to recognize the different types and the roles all of them play in our health. Eating foods with fat is part of a healthy diet; you just must remember to choose foods that provide good fats and (if you're looking to go on a diet) make sure to balance the number of calories you eat from all foods with the number of calories you burn.
To start to understand the difference between good and bad fats, and what you should eat and how much, the first thing to do is to learn your fat groups.
There are two groups of fats: saturated and unsaturated. It would be helpful (though not entirely accurate) to think of saturated fats as the bad guys, and unsaturated fats as the good guys. Within these divisions are even more specific types of fat which we will go into further.
Let's start with the good guys. The fat heroes. When eaten in moderation, they can help lower cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of heart disease.
Liquid at room temperature and solid when refrigerated, these heart-healthy fats are an excellent source of antioxidants, including vitamin E, a nutrient often lacking in American diets. Monounsaturated fats are found in olives and avocados, as well as many nuts, seeds, and oils.
Health benefits of MUFAs can include increased HDL cholesterol, lowered blood pressure, reduced belly fat, and decreased insulin resistance.
These fats can be found primarily in plant-based foods and oils, such as vegetable oils, and, like monounsaturated fats, can decrease your risk of heart disease by lowering blood cholesterol levels.
Ever heard of Omega-3 fatty acids? We would be surprised if you haven't. In recent years, these fats have been touted as "the God of all fats." Two crucial ones - EPA and DHA - are primarily found in individual fish. ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), another omega-3 fatty acid, is located in plant sources such as nuts and seeds.
Omega 3's have been proven to be particularly beneficial for your heart. Consuming these acids have shown to result in an extensive range of benefits for your health, including decreased risk of coronary artery disease and lowered blood pressure. You can get this nutrient from not only nuts and seeds, but also specific types of fatty fish, such as salmon, catfish, sardines, trout, and herring. The American Heart Association recommends eating two servings of oily fish each week.
It is important not to get your Omega-3's from supplements. These fats are best consumed in their natural state.
As per the previous edition of the USDA Dietary Guidelines, the 2015-2020 edition encourages Americans to eat less saturated fats and more unsaturated fats. More specifically, they encourage us to keep saturated fat consumption to less than 10% of calories per day, which is based on scientific evidence that shows replacing saturated with unsaturated fats is associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
You can find saturated fats mainly in animal products, including fatty cuts of beef, pork, and lamb, high-fat dairy foods, dark chicken meat and poultry skin, and lard. They can also be found in vegetable fats that are liquid at room temperatures, such as coconut and palm oils. These foods are known mainly to be unhealthy in substantial qualities, though excess levels of saturated fat have also been shown to clog arteries and increase blood cholesterol levels and LDL levels, which can increase your risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Though opinions and research change through the years, it is recommended to use liquid vegetable oils instead of animal or partially hydrogenated fats when considering your health.
What are partially hydrogenated fats, you may ask? Well, they are just one type of trans fatty acids or trans fats. And though there are two types of trans fats, the artificial partially hydrogenated fats are the worst kind that you can find. They occur when liquid vegetable oils become hard. These trans fats are used extensively in frying, baked goods, cookies, icings, prepackaged snack foods, microwave popcorn, and most margarine.
Then there are the naturally occurring types, which are found in small amounts in dairy and meat. These are not cause for concern, especially if you are choosing low-fat dairy products (such as yogurt and cheese) and lean meats.
Like saturated fat, trans fat can raise LDL cholesterol, also known as "bad" cholesterol. It may also suppress HDL levels ("good" cholesterol,) in turn increasing your risk of heart disease.
Many experts agree that trans fats are more dangerous than saturated fats. In fact, the American Heart Association recommends limiting trans fats to less than 2 grams per day, including naturally occurring kinds.
And though trans fats get a lot of the bad press, it is important to remember that lowering of total fat and engaging in an overall healthy lifestyle is the key to weight management.
So, how can you maintain a healthy diet while still monitoring your fat intake? These tips will help you make sure the fats you consume are the healthy ones.
Keep in mind that it is essential to consider all macronutrients - carbohydrates, proteins, and fats - as a part of a healthy, balanced, diet. Eat your fruits and vegetables and focus on whole grains instead of refined carbohydrates.
When choosing dairy products, experiment with low-fat and skim varieties. Don't be afraid of the full-fat yogurts and cheeses, but remember to consume in moderation. Just because something seems "healthy" doesn't mean you should forget about serving size. Use fats, but do so sparingly. Try to use unsaturated liquid oils, such as canola or olive, instead of butter or partially hydrogenated margarine. Always keep in mind that fats contain the highest amount of calories per gram, with a whopping 9g (as opposed to 4 per gram of both carbohydrates and proteins.)
And always remember to stay away from processed foods, fried foods, and desserts. These typically contain the unhealthy fats (saturated and trans fats) that we mentioned earlier. They taste good, but they don't do your body any favors.
Healthy fats are an essential part of your diet, but it is important to remember to moderate your consumption of all of them, even the healthy kinds. Fats are high in calories and overconsumption will likely lead to weight gain. Replace unhealthy fats such as butter and margarine with olive oil when possible, and make an effort to incorporate foods that contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (like fish, nuts, and seeds.) These strategies will better your health and in turn, better your life.