Starting in the 1990s, Americans became obsessed with low fat diets, and experts proclaimed that eating less fat was the ticket to everything from smaller waistlines to healthier hearts. Now, over twenty years later, the obesity rate in America has doubled and nutritionists and fitness experts alike are revisiting the role of fats in a wholesome diet. Today, most have come to understand that some dietary fats are not just safe – they are also an essential part of any weight loss plan, a powerful preventative against cardiac disease, and an important regulator of memory and emotion. Here are a few facts about fats that will help you separate the healthy from the dangerous:
Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are the good guys: Monounsaturated fats come from olive, canola, peanut, and avocado oil and foods such as avocados, nuts, and seeds. These are the fats found in abundance in the diets of people from the Mediterranean and are credited with the low incidence of heart disease in that area, despite a diet high in fat. Polyunsaturated fats are found in corn, sunflower, and safflower oil and are essential for normal body function (they are needed for blood clotting and muscle movement and control inflammation). Your body can’t make these fats, so they must be consumed as part of a healthy diet. Polyunsaturated fats consist of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3s have been shown to be essential in preventing heart disease, reducing blood pressure, increasing HDL (good) cholesterol, and mitigating arthritis pain. Omega-3s are present in fatty fish like sardines, mackerel, and salmon as well as in flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil, and unhydrogenated soybean oil.
Trans fats are the bad guys: Trans fat, a type of saturated fat, found mostly in industrially produced hydrogenated vegetable oil, is the real villain of the fat world. Trans fats have been found to raise LDL (bad) and lower HDL (good) cholesterol levels. Trans fats have also been linked to obesity, diabetes, memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease, and mental illness. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has recently given U.S. manufacturers and food sellers three years to remove all trans fats from their products and menu offerings. And though many producers have voluntarily started to reduce trans fats in their offerings, it can still be found in unhealthy levels (more than two grams a day) in ready-to-spread frostings, margarine, vegetable shortening, microwave and stovetop popcorn, packaged and frozen bakery goods, frozen and refrigerator doughs, frozen pizzas, and many fast foods.
Saturated fats have a (mostly) undeserved bad reputation: Trans fats, a man-made saturated fat, has no place in a healthy diet, as discussed above. But recent studies have found that naturally occurring saturated fats, such as those found in whole milk dairy products, animal lard, and red meats, do not, as previously thought, contribute to high cholesterol or heart disease. In fact, especially when derived from grass fed animal sources, such fats can provide otherwise hard-to-find nutrients and vitamins. Also, these fats help you feel full and can aid in keeping to a calorie restricted diet. Many products advertised as “low-fat” or “no fat” replace these filling saturated fats with high calorie refined carbohydrates and sugar, a sure recipe for dieting disaster.
To reduce body fat, you need to know your dietary fats. Seek out sources of healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats. Avoid trans fats. Enjoy other saturated fats in moderation. And make sure your fat-free and low-fat foods are not filled with high-calorie refined carbohydrates and sugars.