Should we fear fats? Should we love fats? Should we consume all types of fats? Should we buy low-fat? As a registered dietitian, I hear these questions all the time, and for a good reason. Yes, the media is always putting out conflicting information about nutrition, which makes it hard to understand the truth. However, this isn’t just the media’s fault – it’s also due to changing research.
Here’s a quick history lesson:
For many years, we were told that fat was the problem with the growing obesity epidemic and poor heart health. All fats – saturated and unsaturated – were looked down upon and the “low-fat” craze started, despite its important role in hormone production, temperature regulation, and protection of organs. Everyone turned in their eggs and bacon for breakfast cereal, red meat for processed “low-fat” TV dinners. The problem with that? These new “healthier foods” were full of sugar and processed carbohydrates. We later learned that these aren’t so great for our waistlines or hearts either.
So now – fats are back. Diets such as the Atkins diet and ketogenic diet brought back fat, not limiting the type or amount, claiming to help with weight loss. While they certainly do help with weight loss (these diets are based on low-carbohydrate intake, and when there’s no carbohydrates to burn, our body turns to fat burn), the research on saturated fat is still ongoing, so we want to be weary. These low-carbohydrate and high-fat diets are also hard to stick to, which goes against my main qualification for any lifestyle change. This roller coaster of information leaves everyone a little confused as to which fats to choose, if any at all.
Here’s a breakdown of which fats are which and what to choose:
Artificial trans fats: man-made by adding an extra hydrogen molecule to vegetable oil to make it more shelf-stable. Trans fats raise your bad (LDL) cholesterol and lower your good (HDL) cholesterol levels. This increases your risk of developing heart disease and stroke, and is associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.* Avoid any foods that have “partially hydrogenated oils” in the ingredients label.
Saturated fats: typically solid at room temperature and found in animal sources such as meat and dairy. They are also found in many baked and fried foods. These don’t need to be avoided at all costs, but I recommend keeping them in small doses, under 10-13 grams per day. Saturated fats raise your bad (LDL) cholesterol, increasing your risk of heart disease and stroke.*
Unsaturated fats: typically liquid at room temperature and found mostly in plant sources such as nuts, seeds, oil, and avocado. They are also found in fish. Replacing saturated and trans fats with unsaturated fats raises your good (HDL) cholesterol.* I recommend to consume these with each meal and snack to help with satiety and give your body the benefits discussed above, but in small portion sizes because of dense calorie content of fats. Fat doesn’t make you fat, as once thought, however, too many calories of anything can cause weight gain, so it’s important to keep fat portions in check.
All in all, it comes down to the basics: “Eat real food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” -Michael Pollen. This quote is especially important when it comes to dietary fats — consume the ones that haven’t been processed, keep portion sizes small, and surround them with a lot more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains — this will keep your heart and your waistline happy!
*Source: American Heart Association
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