Diet culture has cycled through what feels like hundreds of trends:
“Go keto and lose 10 lbs in a month!”
“Only eat raw, never cooked veggies for optimal health!”
And even the wild, “Eat only Special K to fit into your old jeans again!”
One diet trend has stood the test of time, however: Aim to have a low-fat diet. The idea that all fats are bad is pervasive—many of us have been taught from a young age that fat is unhealthy and we should avoid it at all costs. And that fat makes you FAT! But is that really the case?
Today we’re breaking down the facts behind the war on fat that has been raging for decades. We’ll outline which fats to avoid and which to prioritize for optimal health.
But first… Why do people say fat is bad or unhealthy?
Some fat is unhealthy, but if we take a peek into history, we see where the full-fledged smear campaign on fat began.
Scientists began researching nutrition more intensely following World War II. In initial studies, they found a link between heart disease and foods heavy in saturated fats (red meat, for example). In the ensuing decades, this led to physicians recommending that people limit the amount of fat they ingest. When the national food guidelines were developed in the 70s and 80s (think: the precursor of the ‘My Plate’ you or your kids might have been taught in school), the takeaway message for many was to avoid fat. People weren’t well educated on the difference between saturated and unsaturated fats, so the recommendation to avoid specifically saturated fat was heard by many that “fat is bad.”
Let’s clear one thing up first: What is the difference between good fat and bad fat?
First, I encourage you to drop language like “good” and “bad” from any of your food vocabulary. Most foods can be “bad” in too high of a quantity; for example, if you eat seven mangos in a day, your blood sugar will not thank you. On the other hand, even “bad” foods in small amounts can be a net positive. For instance, allowing yourself a cupcake (or—gasp—two!) at your child’s birthday party without any guilt will likely help you feel more present and less stressed about whether or not you should eat the cupcake. Enjoy yourself and allow yourself to enjoy foods in moderation, too!
Saturated vs Unsaturated Fats
Now, when we consider fat, you should know there are two main types of fat: saturated and unsaturated fat. Saturated fats, at the molecular level, have all of their carbon atoms “saturated” with hydrogens. This basically means they form a neat linear molecule. Saturated fats, because of their structure, can easily build up and “stack” on top of one another.
Unsaturated fats have one to a few of their carbons “unsaturated” with hydrogens. This gives unsaturated fats kinks wherever the carbons aren’t fully saturated with hydrogens, which in turn makes it hard for them to build up and “stack” atop one another.
Both of these fats occur naturally, and to an extent, both should be present in your diet. Because unsaturated fats don’t build up as readily as saturated fats, these are generally healthier fats that give more benefits to your body.
Remember: fats (also called lipids) are one of the four main molecules that make up your entire body, in addition to carbohydrates, DNA, and proteins. You need fats in your diet to help your body with its daily processes, insulation, repair, energy storage, and more! Fats are a vital part of your diet. You need fat for good health.
So, what kinds of fats (and foods) should I focus on?
Fats to include: Unsaturated fats are found in fatty fish, avocados, olive oil, nuts, seeds, and a variety of other natural, non-processed foods. These fats are the most nourishing for the body. Adequate consumption of unsaturated fats leads to improved health!
Fats to have in moderation: Saturated fats occur naturally in red meat, eggs, dairy, coconut and palm oil. The studies on saturated fats are mixed. In high levels, they are believed to contribute to heart disease. Limiting their consumption leads to better health outcomes, but you do not need to cut them out all together. They naturally occur in a variety of foods!
Fats to avoid: Trans fats in processed and fried foods are where we see the worst health effects. Avoiding highly processed foods, fast food, and fried food will help you steer clear of these genuinely unhealthy fats.
Back to our discussion about diet culture though—have you ever opted for low-fat or fat-free options at the grocery store, thinking that was the healthier choice?
Now that we’ve covered that many fats are healthy, I encourage you to think twice before choosing low-fat or fat-free options. Fat packs flavor in foods, so when fat is removed, it’s often replaced with a form of sugar… and a lot of it! Reduced fat options generally are more unhealthy than the normal fat option because of their high sugar levels, so read labels carefully when you’re grocery shopping!
All in all, there are some fats that can boost your health, while others will harm it. Prioritize unsaturated fats, avoid trans fats and processed foods, and enjoy saturated fats in moderation. End the war on fats and include healthy fats in your diet for optimal nutrition!