If you look around the aisles of your grocery store you’ll most likely see lots of brightly colored packaging with large letters yelling at you that what is contained inside is FAT-FREE!!! Sounds good, right? Not necessarily.
Just like carbohydrates, there are a lot of different sources of dietary fat. There are also a lot of misconceptions about what are “good” vs. “bad” fats, and what should be included or avoided in our diets. I said this in my entry about carbohydrates and I’ll say it here, too. It would be very difficult to avoid dietary fat, and you wouldn’t want to, either. Fat should be enjoyed equally with it’s Macronutrient friends, Carbohydrates and Protein.
First of all, what are the different types of dietary fat, and where do they come from?
Trans Fats are the one type of fat you want to avoid. Trans fats come in the form of processed oils and are not found anywhere in nature. They are easier to cook with and less likely to spoil, but they also have been linked with high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease. Hydrogenated vegetable oils, shortening, non-dairy creamer, and margarine are examples of Trans fats. Most fast food is cooked in Trans fats because it’s cost effective on a larger scale. It’s not health effective for our bodies, though.
Monounsaturated Fats (MUFAs) are, in my opinion, the best game in town. In fact, The Flat Belly Diet makes these fats the cornerstone of it’s philosophy. It stresses that you should have one serving of MUFA with every meal. These fats come mainly from plant sources. Think olives, olive oil, avocado, chick peas, nuts, and seeds. Did I mention dark chocolate? Yup, dark chocolate has the good fat! MUFAs have been found to decrease the risk of heart disease, benefit insulin levels, improve blood cholesterol levels, and decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes. The foods they come in can also have anti-inflammatory properties, helping to keep systemic inflammation in check.
Polyunsaturated Fats (PUFAs) are the “proceed with caution” fats. There are lots of types, but the main ones I’ll focus on are Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. The simple explanation is Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory so you want some of them but not too much. Omega-6s are inflammatory so they should be minimized. Their sources are mainly nuts (or non-processed nut butters) and seeds, which are also high in calories, so they should be consumed in moderation.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been associated with decreased risk for heart disease, curbing joint inflammation for those suffering with Rheumatoid arthritis, and lowering levels of depression. There has also been research suggesting that it can help protect against Alzheimer’s and dementia.
A better source of Omega-3s than nuts and seeds are naturally raised animal proteins, like grass fed beef, pastured chicken, and wild salmon. The key here is to think about the food your food is eating. Omega-3s come from things like algae and grasses that our bodies can’t digest. Factory raised animals don’t have the benefit of a diet that would occur for them in nature so as a result they don’t have the same nutritional benefits to pass up the food chain to us.
Saturated Fats seem to be the most controversial and misunderstood. They are derived mainly from animal products like meat, poultry, and full fat dairy products. Coconuts, coconut milk, and coconut oil are also non-animal sources of saturated fat that are great sources of energy that the body can use very quickly. Coconut milk can also be a fantastic substitute for milk or cream in your cooking if you want to avoid dairy.
There are lots of myths and guilt by association with animal products and saturated fats that have been dispelled, but that the general public still hangs onto. Fast food burgers have a lot of junk in them that you won’t find in a burger made with unprocessed, grass-fed beef, for example. The issues with a fast food burger have less to do with saturated fat than they do with the manner in which the meat was sourced and prepared. It’s also still popularly believed that saturated fat is linked to increased risk of coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and stroke risk. The Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a study in 2010 that tells us this isn’t true, and that it may have more to do with refined carbohydrates in our diets.
You can read more about the role refined carbohydrates play in obesity, diabetes, and heart disease HERE.
Why do we want fat in our diets?
- The aforementioned fat sources (except those cooked in Trans fats) come from foods which, if consumed in moderation and in their natural non-processed forms, have other important micronutrients that you wouldn’t want to exclude from your diet. Steak has vitamin B2, vitamin D, iron, magnesium, zinc, selenium and potassium. Avocado has Vitamin K, folate, Vitamin C, and Potassium, just to name a few.
- Dietary fat provides more satisfaction after a meal and it gives you a higher satiety level than carbohydrates. This just means it tastes good and you will feel full sooner and longer. You won’t have to eat as much or as often as you do with a diet that is heavy in carbohydrates.
- Here’s a really fun reason. Fat is an excellent energy source. We can make dietary shifts to make our bodies efficient at burning not only dietary fats, but fat stores in our bodies. This is called being “fat adapted”. You can find lots of “sciency” stuff about this concept, but the easy explanation is that by decreasing the intake of processed and simple carbohydrates, we “teach” our bodies to use fat as a long term energy source. High endurance athletes have been experimenting with extreme versions of this for a while now, which you can read about HERE.
How did we get away from understanding this, though? Starting back in the 70’s, a lot of studies linked saturated fat and cholesterol with things like cardiovascular disease. Dietary guidelines started to urge people to eat less of certain types of fat. Many people took this advice to mean ALL types of fat, and began to avoid it indiscriminately. Low-fat processed foods began to flood the market, but what we got instead of healthy alternatives and better information were pre-packaged, processed food products full of refined starches and sugars. Take the fat out of something like yogurt and you have to put something back in to make it taste good again. Sugar seems to be the answer to that conundrum in the modern food industry. At the risk of sounding to much like a conspiracy-theorist, it is the food industry’s job to make money, not to offer you the best nutritionally sound choices. Read your labels!
So my final word on the controversy of low-fat, non-fat, fat-free stuff is that I think it is malarkey. Every meal should follow a simple formula, including one serving of protein, one serving of carbohydrate, and one serving of a healthy fat. If you are following this formula and eating a wide variety of natural, single ingredient, non-processed foods, you shouldn’t have to worry about fat intake.