The big fat truth
Almost every day I hear people talking about how they need to cut out fat from their diet so they can lose weight. People associate the word fat with gaining weight or looking unhealthy. In reality, dietary fat keeps us healthy in many ways and is an essential for a variety of body functions. I consulted with Sharon Lehrman, a registered dietitian in Minneapolis and owner of Nutrition, Health, and Wellness, to provide you with the real deal on fats.
It’s a common belief that we gain fat by eating fattening foods. It sounds like it makes sense, but that’s not actually how it works. People gain weight by consuming more calories than they burn. So no matter where your calories are coming from, you will gain weight if you don’t burn them off. The reason fat often gets a bad rap is that one gram of fat has about double the amount of calories as the one gram of either of the other macronutrients, proteins and carbohydrates.
So if fat has so many calories, why do we need fat at all? It turns out that fat is essential for a variety of body functions and has many protective benefits.
Lehrman explains that fat acts as a body insulator and protects our organs. She also shared that our brains are made of 60% fat. Replenishing our fat stores helps to keep our brains functioning and makes sure we’re on top of our game. In addition, the fat soluble vitamins (A, E, D and K) need fat in order to be absorbed and used in the body.
Many people avoid fats either to lose weight or because they think they must eat a low fat diet to control their diabetes or high cholesterol. Often this counteracts the intended purpose. Everyone needs fat; the important part is to choose the right kind.
Unsaturated fats are the “good” fats that dietitians and doctors often encourage people to eat. Lehrman explained that these healthy fats can actually lower the risk of heart disease and cholesterol levels by reducing low-density lipoproteins (LDLs) and increasing high-density lipoproteins (HDLs). HDLs help to remove the LDLs from the bloodstream, which results in lower total blood cholesterol. Good sources of these beneficial fats include olive oil and olives, canola oil, avocado and nuts such as cashews, pistachios and almonds.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a special type of unsaturated fat that have been getting a lot of hype in the news over the last several years. Omega-3s are important because they are an essential nutrient, meaning that our body doesn’t make them so we must get them through our food. According to the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), omega-3s are crucial for body functions such as regulating blood clotting and inflammation and have also been proven to have protective effects such as reducing risk of heart disease. In addition, Lehrman explains that omega-3s role in boosting brain function can actually help alleviate depression symptoms and increase sleep quality.
There are three types of omega-3s. The two types that are often grouped together are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are both found in fatty fish like herring, salmon and oysters. The other omega-3 is alpha linoleic acid (ALA). ALA is found in plant foods such as flaxseed oil, expeller pressed canola oil, tofu, pumpkin seeds and walnuts. When you consume foods rich in ALA, the fatty acid is then partially converted to the EPA and DHA. Lehrman advises, “It’s important for people who don’t eat fish to include ALA foods [in their diet].” Try sprinkling pumpkin seeds (often called pepitas) on your oatmeal or making your own salad dressing with vinegar and canola oil.
Saturated fats and trans fats are the two “bad” fats. Saturated fats can increase blood cholesterol and risk for heart disease by raising LDL levels. Animal products such as meat and dairy products are high in saturated fats. However, there are small amounts of saturated fats in healthy foods such as lean meats, nuts and fish. For this reason, it is unwise to completely cut out saturated fats from your diet, but reducing the amount of full-fat meat and dairy is an easy way to cut back on your saturated fat intake.
Trans fats pose a double risk to your health as they both raise LDL levels and lower HDL levels. Trans fats are most often manufactured by hydrogenation. Hydrogenation significantly lengthens the shelf life of foods, which is why it is popular in the food industry. Lehrman maintains that there is no safe amount of trans fats, they should be completely avoided. Fortunately, the FDA has recognized their harmful effects and now foods must be clearly labeled if they contain the harmful fats.
Often people obsess about only eating a certain number of fat grams or a specific percentage of their calories from fat. Instead, Lehrman suggests focusing on replacing saturated and trans fats with omega-3s and unsaturated fats. She emphasizes that if you make a few simple changes to your diet, you can improve the quality of the fats you are eating while simultaneously reducing the total amount of fat in your diet. Here are some tips to make fat your friend.
1) Eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Increasing these foods in your diet will not leave much room for overdoing it with fats.
2) Prepare most of your meals at home. Often unnecessary fats are added to restaurant meals to boost flavor. If you make your meals at home, you know exactly what you’re eating. Take leftovers for lunch and snacks so you always have a healthy option.
3) Check labels carefully. Just because something is labeled “low-fat” does not mean it has the right types of fats. Even if the nutrition facts label indicates there are 0 grams of trans fat in the food, if the ingredient list contains “partially hydrogenated oil” it does contain a small amount of trans fats (but not enough to require it on the label). Put it back on the shelf and look for a similar product without that ingredient. Pay extra attention to baked goods, crackers, pie crust, salad dressings, margarine and pre-packaged meals.
Sharon Lehrman, MPH, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian with a private practice and corporate wellness business in Minneapolis. You can read health-related articles, subscribe to her free monthly nutrition e-newsletter, or contact her at www.NutritionHealthandWellness.com.
Raina Goldstein Bunnag has a bachelors degree from Boston University and is currently a masters candidate in nutrition and public health at the University of North Carolina.She keeps abreast of the latest health news and will be addressing relevant wellness topics each month. If you have any questions or topics you would like to see covered in the column, please send her an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.