Fat is bad. We need fat. Butter is back. Healthy fats are good. Every place you look, you get a different opinion. So which is right for you? The answer lies in your overall diet as well as in your personal health concerns.
The research on fat is heating up. Is everything that we once thought about fats out the window? No. Does it mean we have to think about why we make certain food choices? Yes. But that shouldn’t be a new concept.
A Quick Refresher: Types of Fats
Found primarily in meat and dairy. Saturated fats have been shown to increase levels of LDL (think of L as standing for “lousy”) cholesterol and increase risk for heart disease.
Found mostly in fried foods and baked goods. Trans fats are the heavy hitter on poor health. Trans fats have been linked with increasing our LDL cholesterol and decreasing our HDL (think H as in “healthy”) cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart disease and strokes, and possibly increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Mono and Polyunsaturated Fats
These are the healthy fats. Found in oils, avocado, peanut butter, nuts, seeds, salmon, mackerel, herring, and trout. A moderate intake of mono and polyunsaturated fat helps reduce LDL cholesterol levels and provides the body with the essential fat it needs.
Put It into Practice
The above information is good to have. But knowing how to read a food label puts that knowledge into everyday use. When I teach clients how to use food labels, I give them three rules to follow:
- Percent daily value: Look at the saturated fats line and follow it all the way to the right (the column titled “%DV,” or percent daily value). Aim to make this number as close to 5 percent (or less) as you can get.
Example: If one item lists 23 percent daily value of saturated fat and another bar has 13 percent, the second one is a better choice. If there is another that has 5 percent daily value, that is the best choice.
- Seeking the majority: Try to get the majority of the fat from healthy fats (mono and polyunsaturated fats). The food label will list “total fat,” with a breakdown of the types of fats listed below it. A majority of the total fat should come from healthy fat sources.
Example: Let’s say the total fat is eight grams, saturated fat is three grams, trans fat is zero grams, polyunsaturated fat is two and half grams, and monounsaturated fat is two and a half grams. This means that the total unsaturated fat (two and half grams plus two and half grams, equaling five grams) makes up a majority of the total fat. This is a food with predominantly healthy fat.
- Check the ingredients. If you see the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated,” avoid this product! These words are ways to identify hidden trans fats.
Portions Are Key
Most people easily recognize which fats they should avoid (fried food, cheese, pastries) and are becoming equally knowledgeable about healthy fat sources (olive oil, avocados, nuts, fatty fish). So where do people continue to go wrong with fats? It frequently comes down to portion sizes. Remember this: just because something is nutritious does not mean we can eat endless amounts of it. We must still balance our energy intake with our long-term goals for weight management, whether that be loss, gain, or maintenance. We need to become familiar with the appropriate quantities of fat sources. Healthy oils used in cooking or salad dressings are beneficial; however, a tablespoon of oil contains on average 120 calories. Two or three extra tablespoons of oil used in cooking and for cold dishes can quickly add up to 240–360 calories. That’s a whole extra snack’s worth of calories and may be the reason why those last few pounds won’t budge. So be mindful of portions.
New Thoughts on Saturated Fat
This used to be where I would end the conversation on fats. However, new research is unfolding that is making scientists, doctors, and dietitians take another look at the role fats play and just what sources we should be avoiding. This debate is looking at saturated fat. More research is still needed, but here are the primary areas that are being revisited.
- Saturated fats cause cardiovascular disease.
Historical studies have found a connection between an increased intake of saturated fat and higher levels of cholesterol. Evidence tells us that lowering our LDL cholesterol reduces our risk of cardiovascular disease. The challenge in linking increased saturated fat intake to cardiovascular disease is that a direct cause and effect hasn’t been identified. Without a direct link, we can’t conclusively say that all saturated fat is “bad.”
- Saturated fat is all the same regardless of the source.
Research is looking into whether the makeup of the saturated fat in items such as dairy are the same as those in meat. If that chemical makeup is different, could it possibly have a different effect on our health? Saturated fat is primarily found in animal proteins and partial- to full-fat dairy. We can easily imagine a glass of milk and then picture a plate of steak. Can we agree that they appear different visually? Yes. So why would we automatically assume that the saturated fat within them is identical? Additionally, the vitamins and minerals in dairy are not present in the same quantities in meat. Perhaps this results in the body processing the saturated fat differently. An interesting concept for sure.
- Are we focusing too much on nutrients and not on the food?
The previous question about whether all saturated fat is the same brings to mind the debate on eggs. Eggs are a known source of cholesterol and were once seen as a food to avoid. However, emerging research has shown us that people with well-balanced diets, who do not have a problem with cholesterol, do not need to avoid eggs. Additionally, we have to factor in how those eggs are being used. Yes, eggs are higher in cholesterol than some foods, but they are a good source of protein, healthy fat, and vitamin D. If we focus too much on the nutrient, we miss out on the overall benefits of the whole food.
The uncertainty of emerging science can be frustrating. However, we should focus on the positive and understand that science is evolving and thinking outside the box, giving all foods a second chance. Although this information should make you think twice about your saturated fat intake, it shouldn’t make you question what we have always known about high-fat foods. Although whole milk, full-fat yogurt, and cottage cheese may make their way back into your grocery cart, it is clear that foods such as ice cream (made with added sugar) and pizza (made with processed cheese, fatty toppings, and refined-carbohydrate crust) should be eaten in moderation.
Dennett, Carrie. “The Truth about Dairy Fats.” Today’s Dietitian October 2016: 26–30.