The Mystery Behind Dietary Fats:
The topic of dietary fat is one of the most confusing and controversial food related topics that continues to live on today, and for a good reason. It’s hard not to pick up a magazine, or see an ad, or hear through the grapevine about the newest fat-fad out there, one constantly contradicting the other. On top of that, the U.S. Dietary guidelines and nutrition labels are more than often misleading and broad. The struggle is real, with SO MANY mixed messages, we are left to wonder how to eat and whether fat should be included in our diet.
At the end of the day, we can always count on science, anatomy, and physiology at the core, to be our guide.
Eating healthy can mean different things for different people. Every single body is different, but what we all have in common is the need for certain nutrients in order to function properly. The word FAT has gotten a bad reputation over the years, and we turned to low-fat diets, and a growing number of products becoming available in the grocery stores that have a low-fat or nonfat option.
But what if we were to learn that there are different types of dietary fats out there, and that some of them are good for you, and even more so, some are actually ESSENTIAL!
Lipid is the scientific name for fat, and all human bodies need certain types of lipids to operate.
In a nutshell, we need fat in order to survive. Fats play an important role in many of the body’s vital functions in several ways. They are a major source of energy for the body. The liver and other fatty tissues are also responsible for storing and helping the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. We need lipids for insulation and preventing heat loss, and for protection of our vital organs from the everyday wear-and-tear of our routine activities. Fat is needed to build cell membranes (the essential outer layer of each cell), and the sheaths that surround the nerves. We need it for blood clotting, muscle movement, and inflammation. Fats act as messengers that help proteins come together and perform their functions. The role of lipids in our metabolism doesn’t stop there. We also use them for starting chemical reactions that help control our growth, immune function, and reproduction.
Not all fats are the same, some better for the body than others. We have managed to divide them into “good fats”, “bad fats”, and some are still not fully understood, and have been placed somewhere in-between.
The three types of dietary fats are saturated, unsaturated, and trans fats; all of which are pretty similar chemically, however they seem to affect the body in different ways.
“The Bad Fats”
It is important to know what role bad fats play in the body, and the risks we expose ourselves to by consuming them, in order to understand why they are considered to be harmful.
The worst type of dietary fat is known as Trans fat. It has been widely accepted that it is bad for your health. It occurs naturally in some foods (such as beef and lamb), but in very small amounts. It starts to become a problem when we consume Trans-fat byproducts that have been created through an unnatural process called partial hydrogenation, during which healthy oils are converted into solids to prevent them from spoiling and turning rancid.
They taste good, but consuming Trans fats have no known benefits for the body. They do, however, increase the amount of harmful LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol in the bloodstream, and reduce the amount of beneficial HDL (high density lipoprotein) cholesterol. Trans fat is also linked to an alarmingly high risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic conditions that are all linked to inflammation when it is consumed. This could explain why the FDA has been working to remove artificial trans fat in processed foods. The hydrogenation process turns oils into solids, and can be found in many products you may not even realize contain them. You can start by avoiding foods that are full of trans fat including margarine, microwave popcorn, cakes, pies, cookies, doughnuts, and frozen pizzas. One way to distinguish and avoid these products is to read food labels, as they are typically listed as “partially hydrogenated oil”.
Most scientists are in agreement by now that unsaturated fats have health benefits, and are the least harmful to our health. We experience the benefits by feeling more satiated, our metabolism is maximized, they help protect against heart disease, and improve fat soluble vitamin intake.
Good fats can be consumed primarily from nuts, seeds, certain vegetables, and fish. They are liquid in room temperature, and fall into two main categories: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
Monounsaturated fats can help lower bad LDL cholesterol levels in the blood which lowers risk of heart disease and stroke. They provide the body with nutrients that help develop and maintain the body’s cells, as well as provide an essential antioxidant, vitamin E. The only warning with these fats by scientists is that in the long-term, these studies have had mixed results on cardiovascular disease, and some caution is needed.
Foods high in monounsaturated fats include plant based oils that are liquid in room temperature such as olive, peanut, safflower, and sesame oils, avocados, almonds, pecans, pumpkin, sesame seeds, and nut butters.
When we consume the right kinds of fats we can actually feel fuller and possibly even lose weight. You can read more about this type of diet in the book Eat Fat, Lose Fat: The Healthy Alternative to Trans Fats by Dr. Mary Enig and Sally Fallon.
Polyunsaturated fats are also known as essential fats. The body needs them for normal function and cannot make them on its own, therefore it must be consumed from food. They are used for building cell membranes and the covering of nerves, and needed for blood clotting, muscle movement, and inflammation. Several similar studies have all had similar results such as one in the journal Circulation, reporting that eating polyunsaturated fat can decrease the amount of bad (LDL) cholesterol in the bloodstream while raising good cholesterol (HDL), and lowering the overall risk of cardiovascular disease. The two types are omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acidS, both offer health benefits.
Omega-3 fatty acids may help prevent and even treat heart disease and stroke, as well as reduce blood pressure, raise good HDL cholesterol, and lowers triglycerides (the main constituents of body fat in humans) and bad LDL cholesterol. Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, and sardines), seafood, flaxseeds, and walnuts and unhydrogenated soybean oil (we recommend always choosing a NON-GMO version, as most are genetically modified and not recommended to be consumed that way).
Omega 6-fatty acids have also been linked to protect against heart disease, and include sources from vegetable oils such as safflower, soybean, sunflower, and walnut.
That being said, even healthy fat should be consumed in moderation.
Now here’s where it gets a little tricky.. Saturated fat has been looked down upon for many years and it has been advised to avoid it by the American Heart Association. Recent studies and research have shown that saturated fats may not be as bad as we thought they were. They are common in the American diet, and as we know, too much of a good thing can be harmful.
Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and sources containing them in large amounts are animal based foods such as red meat (bacon, beef), poultry, whole milk, whole-milk dairy products, butter, cheese, coconut and palm oils.
Because saturated fats are still known to raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol, most nutrition experts are recommending we limit our saturated fat intake to under 10% of calories daily. If you are at risk for heart disease, heart disease runs in your family, or you suffer from heart disease, we recommend to limit these fats as well as trans fats, and replace them with unsaturated fats which can help protect against heart disease. Otherwise, if the food you are eating is full of nutrients but also contains saturated fat (such as coconut oil or butter), we recommend eating it as long as it is done in moderation!
The most important aspect of lowering the bad or questionable fats in the diet, is what you replace them with. Those that replace them with unsaturated fats gain the most benefits, while those who may be eating a non-fat diet, could be more unhealthy because they are not eating the essential healthy fats and are replacing them with more sugars, refined grains and starches, and processed foods.
What we can take away from all of this research is that not all fats are bad, and some can and should be part of a healthy diet.
Recommendations and tips for fat intake:
-Stay away from foods high in trans fats.
-Consume unsaturated fat over saturated fat whenever possible.
-ALWAYS READ LABELS to avoid food containing trans fat (TIP: by law, a serving of food containing less than 0.5 grams of trans fat can be labeled as 0 grams, therefore it is important to also check ingredient lists for “partially hydrogenated”).
-Use oil instead of solid fats when possible.
-Replace meat with fatty, wild-caught fish (baked or broiled, not fried!) at meals at least twice a week to get healthy Omega-3’s.
-Choose lean meat and skinless poultry and trim visible fat and remove the skin.
-Eat real food over processed foods and snack smart on fruits, veggies, and nuts over processed snack foods!
Balance is key! Even healthy fats should be moderated.
Studies cannot always be conclusive because we cannot separate fats from foods for these tests. There are other nutrients and components to the foods we eat other than fats, and it should be taken into account when reviewing all the research. The best advice we can use is to eat whole foods, ones that have not been processed or are as minimally processed as possible. This insures that we get the healthiest foods into the diet that include all the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals our bodies require, fat included!