Let’s have the fat chat. As a nutritionist, I’m frequently asked about healthy fats and which ones to eat ("do I put olive oil or canola oil in salad dressing?") or drink ("is grass fed butter in coffee really a healthy habit?"). What determines healthy fats and which ones should you avoid like the plague? Is low-fat or fat-free a better option than full-fat when it comes to dairy products? How much fat should you be eating anyway?
The good news is that, let's call them clean fats, are indeed healthy, and consuming these types of healthy fats (hello, avocado!) is definitely in. Yet the confusion around dietary fat still exists, and a plethora of not so healthy fats continue to hide in our favorite foods.
Consider this your guide to all things fat. Let’s start with a brief background on the whole fearing fat debacle.
A Short History of Fat Paranoia
When did Americans begin to fear fats? Consuming a variety of fats (butter, whole eggs, whole dairy, meat, fish, seeds and nuts, cold pressed oils, etc.) was NBD for centuries. It wasn’t until the 1970s when dietary fat took a hit thanks to the help of the U.S. Senate's approval of the very first dietary guidelines for Americans.
At the time, heart disease was dramatically increasing and numerous scientific studies were uncovering the link between diet and disease. Researchers had also learned that eating saturated fat was linked with increased levels of cholesterol in the bloodstream.
This was a key finding because researchers also knew that having high cholesterol was linked to an increased risk of heart disease. This led to the assumption (which was not based on any experimental evidence in humans) that if saturated fat raises cholesterol, and cholesterol causes heart disease, then saturated fat causes heart disease.
With this notion, the dietary guideline called for a dramatic reduction of dietary fat and an increase in whole carbohydrates, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Unfortunately, the takeaway message that echoed throughout the grocery store shelves was that fat is bad, carbs are good.
The food industry pounced on the opportunity to create a new range of fat-free and low-fat products. Soon, fat-free ice cream, yogurt, cookies, crackers, cakes, salad dressings, and snack products became the new normal with no unhealthy fats in sight.
What happened when fat was taken out of the vast majority of food products though wasn't the spike in health. Americans started to get heavier and instances of type-II diabetes skyrocketed. That's because the food industry did indeed take out the fat, but they replaced it with lots of sugar.
Long-term studies have shown that there is absolutely no benefit for low-fat diets to lead to more weight loss, and there's no benefit for low-fat diets to lead to reduced risks of certain diseases. As we now know, consuming fat is crucial to body functions, and eating a wide variety of healthy fats is part of a healthy and whole diet.
Count Your Macros: Why You Need Healthy Fats
Essentially, your body needs fat to function.
Fat is necessary for the production and storage of energy, supporting cell growth and regeneration, protecting and insulating organs, producing hormones, and starting the chemical reactions that control growth, reproduction, basic metabolism, and immune function.
Fat is also necessary to absorb certain essential vitamins in the body. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble vitamins – meaning they can’t be properly absorbed without the adequate amount of fat.
Vitamin A keeps your eyes healthy and strong. Vitamin D is essential for your bones and helps to absorb calcium. Vitamin E boasts free-radical busting powers. And vitamin K is essential for blood clotting, building strong bones, and protecting your heart. Completely avoiding fats can lead to a deficiency in these important vitamins and result in severe
How do you know if you’re not consuming enough fats? Important signs to look for include: dry skin, extreme mental fogginess and lack of clarity, poor body temperature regulation, being constantly hungry, and the loss of a menstrual cycle. If you have any of these symptoms, talk with your general practitioner ASAP.
The Fat Breakdown
So, fats are awesome, right? Not so fast – not all fats are beneficial for your body. Here’s a breakdown of each kind:
This type of fat is found in fatty meats, lard, butter, cheese, full fat dairy, coconuts and coconut oil, palm oil, and dark chocolate.
Gone are the days when saturated fat was to be avoided at all costs; now we’re putting this type of fat (grass-fed butter, coconut oil) in our morning bulletproof coffee. For years, saturated fat was thought to be inherently bad, increasing risk of heart disease and cholesterol, but no correlating evidence has been found between eating saturated fat and increasing the risk of heart attacks and heart disease.
However, when it comes to saturated fats, all good things in moderation. Dr. Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, notes the findings should not be taken as “a green light” to eat more bacon, butter and other foods rich in saturated fat. Just don’t fear a pat of grass fed butter or two on your baked sweet potato.
Polyunsaturated fats are found in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and trout, walnuts, sunflower seeds, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, sesame seeds, tofu, and soybeans.
These fats provide nutrients for cell health and regeneration (hello, vitamin A!) and are necessary for blood clotting and building cell membranes. Consuming polyunsaturated fats is also linked with lowering (bad) LDL cholesterol in the bloodstream.
Polyunsaturated fats are also made up of essential omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to be especially beneficial for your heart and cholesterol levels.
These healthy fats, also known as MUFAs, are found in foods like dark chocolate, nuts, seeds, olive oil, avocado oil, sesame oil, olives, and avocados.
Monounsaturated fats are beneficial for cell membranes, heart health, reducing fatty liver, and lowering (bad) LDL cholesterol. They may even help with insulin levels, reducing insulin resistance, and controlling blood sugar control too. Prevention notes, “Incorporating ‘good’ unsaturated fats into a fruit-veggie-lean-protein-whole-grain diet helped people with prediabetes reduce their risk of developing full-blown type 2 by almost 60%, according to a landmark government study.”
Trans fats are created by an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. (i.e. to give a product a shelf live of 100 plus years.) Food producers use trans fats because they’re cheap to produce and usually give a fatty, artificial, and buttery taste and texture to processed food products. You can find these artificial fats in packaged bakery goods like cookies and donuts, anything fried and battered, pie crusts, margarine, shortening, and more. You’ll know its a trans fat because the ingredients will list partially hydrogenated vegetable oil on the ingredient list. Trans fats are known to reduce your beneficial HDL cholesterol, raise your LDL cholesterol, increase the risk of type-2 diabetes, heart disease, lower sperm production, and stroke. Yikes!
Luckily, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has finalized its ban on trans-fats, meaning that these harmful fats will be out of processed foods within the next three years. In the time being, it’s still important to read the ingredient list and steer clear of anything partially hydrogenated.
It's also important to note that currently, some products can be listed as containing “0 grams of trans fats” even if they contain as much as 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving.
- Eat real, whole foods that contain real fats. Mindfully eat seeds, nuts, nut butter, avocados, grass fed butter, organic meat and eggs, wild fish, coconut oil, olive oil, avocado oil, cheese, and olives--and don’t feel guilty about it!
- Avoid the marketing gimmicks at the grocery store that shout at you to eat fat-free and low-fat – these are usually the products that have been processed and refined past recognition, and do more harm to our bodies than good. If you’re going to consume yogurt, cheese, butter, peanut butter, meat, etc. – go for an organic, full-fat version. When foods are stripped of their fat, other funky things are often added in like sugar, thickeners, salt, and mystery ingredients.
- Avoid Industrial oils. I'm a firm believer in purchasing organic, cold-pressed oils and using them for a variety of cooking purposes. My favorite oils include olive oil for salad dressing, avocado oil for cooking and roasting, and coconut oil for baking. Industrial oils such as soybean, canola, vegetable, and corn all may seem healthy to a consumer, but they're actually packed with way too many pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, and are processed significantly, leaving little room for nutrition.
4. How many healthy fats do you need in your diet? This all depends on the individual and is based around activity levels, genetics, digestion, hormones, and whether you are pregnant or nursing. Talk to a nutritionist or dietician if you’d like a set number. If not, consume fat mindfully and incorporate healthy fats into each and every meal. Avocado toast anyone?