Is there such a thing as too much “healthy” fat? Or does this only apply to “bad” fats, like trans fats found in processed foods? In the wake of the FDA’s recent ban on trans fats, the question of how much fat is optimal for the human diet is back on the table.
Before the FDA issued its recent ruling on trans fats, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee published its report in February, which helps the government update its recommended Dietary Guidelines every five years.
In its report, the committee shied away from previous recommendations on fat that had stood for nearly 40 years—limiting total fat to no more than 20-35 percent of daily calories. The new report, however, recommends Americans “put the emphasis on optimizing types of dietary fat and not reducing total fat,” a distinction that could have significant repercussions for a nation battling an obesity crisis. The committee also removed recommendations of limiting fat intake specifically to prevent obesity—a long-standing suggestion that experts now say was misguided.
Despite its name, science is confirming that fat isn’t necessarily a culprit in weight gain, and can even aid in weight loss, among numerous health benefits. “[D]emonizing all fat set off the fat-free boom, and a big increase in carbohydrate and sugar intake followed, which led to Americans becoming even fatter,” reports NPR’s The Salt.
While sugars and refined carbs have been outed as major contributors to weight gain and other health issues, including type 2 diabetes, tooth decay and an increased risk of certain types of cancer, the stigma over fat still lingers. That said, some fat deserves caution: Trans fats, which typically come in the form of partially hydrogenated oils, can increase the risk of heart disease, high cholesterol and stroke, in addition to causing weight gain. And saturated fats found in many animal products can raise the levels of LDL cholesterol (the “lousy” kind), which can be a trigger for heart disease and stroke.
But good fats, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, do the opposite: They help lower cholesterol levels, boost heart health, and improve weight loss. These fats also have numerous other benefits, including reducing inflammation in the body, brain health, and supporting healthy skin and hair. But the long-standing fear of fat has most people avoiding fatty foods, even those with proven benefits including avocados, olive oil, nuts, and seeds, which boast significant amounts of healthy fat.
Penny Kris-Etherton, professor of nutrition at Penn State and the chair of the American Heart Association’s nutrition committee, tells The Salt: “There is a pretty solid consensus now that it’s the type of fat that’s really important.”
The government is now reviewing the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s report, and could lift its long-standing limiting recommendation on daily calories from fat. While that may not be enough to sway public opinion on eating more fat in the immediate future, it could help bring more awareness to healthy fats, and may even have long-term effects on our relationship with fat. At least, that’s the hope: that Americans will focus less on how much fat is being consumed, and more on the quality of that fat. And with trans fats on their way out of our diet, finding foods rich in healthy fats should be easier than ever.
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