Don't worry, I'm not talking about the latest trend of demonizing fat-phobia or pushing body positivity. These movements are all going in the right direction thanks to Gen-Z culture normalizing all bodies. It takes a lot of digging to understand what is going on inside a persons body. Sometimes that can reflect externally (appearance) and sometimes it does not.
Today we are diving deep into dietary fat. Yes, this is different than the fat on your body. Dietary fat is one of the three macronutrients in our diet. Fat and protein are both essential; meaning we cannot live without it. And although sometimes we may feel differently, but carbs are not essential to live!
We are finally seeing changes in how our population approaches fat. We are seeing keto diets left and right, avocado toast on every menu, and now put butter in our coffee. How did we get here?
Through the 80's and 90's, the US was pushed towards eating low-fat everything. The main reason for this was the idea and -poorly conducted- studies that showed high-fat foods cause heart disease. The American Heart Association and our Dietary Guidelines for America Food Pyramid reflected extremely low amounts of fat in our diet. There was no discussion regarding the fact that dietary fat is essential to live. If we eliminate fats from our diet, what's left? Protein and carbohydrates..
We all should know by now how important protein is, so high-protein diets essentially maximize positive outcomes. However, high carbohydrate diets are extremely different. Carbs are made up of sugar; so during the digestion and metabolizing process, our bodies either utilize carbs or store them. When we consume carbs or sugar, we release a fat-storing hormone called insulin. Insulin allows us to store carbs as fat in our body. Eventually we can pull from these carb stores and use them as energy during workouts and day-to-day tasks. Our bodies use energy, even while we sleep!
But do we really use all the carbs we eat as energy? Absolutely not. That is why we've seen increasing rates of obesity. It takes you seconds to eat a candy bar, but to burn off 250 calories? That will require an hour long, fast paced walk. Not many people have time to burn off that candy bar. So, it is stored as fat.
Through the 80's and 90's, many of the studies conducted on fat intake were poorly ran. People that ate high-fat foods also didn't exercise, typically smoked, and consumed their fat sources through fried fast food. The studies did not account for these factors. All of these factors show high insulin production (fat storing hormone), little activity to manage the stored fat, and accounted for the high carbs and sugar that were present in their diets.
Now we are starting to understand that not all macronutrients work the same in the body. We all know to lose weight, you must be in a calorie deficit. But as a long term solution, we must chose the foods that our bodies both need and want. Fat and protein are used differently in the body than carbohydrates are. Fat does not spike your blood sugar and does not release insulin (fat-storing hormone). Carbohydrates do do these things. With this information, we can now restructure the way we eat and build meals.
Good Fat Vs. Bad Fat
There are 4 main groups in the fat family. Some are good and some are demonized as bad, as others are actually almost toxic to our bodies. Let's break down these groups:
Let's start with the healthiest of them all, polyunsaturated fats. These fats have more than one unsaturated carbon bond (double bond) and are extremely beneficial to our heart health. They consist of omega 3 fats (extremely anti-inflammatory) and omega 6 fats (proceed with caution).
Omega 3 fats are extremely anti-inflammatory, promote great cardiovascular health and support brain health.
Omega 6 fats are okay in moderation but can lead to inflammation (the opposite of omega 3's) because they are high in arachidonic acid. It's best to avoid foods that are high in omega 6 fats when possible.
Omega 3 fats are found in fatty fish such as salmon and tuna. Other great sources include walnuts, cod liver oil, and flax seeds.
Omega 6 fats are found in oils such as canola, corn, sunflower and safflower. They are also high in many varieties of nuts and seeds but the benefits of eating these outweigh the negatives. Always proceed with caution!
I must quote the American Heart Association while describing the benefits of monounsaturated fat:
"Monounsaturated fats can help reduce bad cholesterol levels in your blood which can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. They also provide nutrients to help develop and maintain your body’s cells. Oils rich in monounsaturated fats also contribute vitamin E to the diet, an antioxidant vitamin most Americans need more of."- American Heart Association
This is a huge break through in providing reliable, truthful information to the public. Years ago, you would never see dietary fat being promoted on the countries' heart health website!
Foods high in monounsaturated fats include olive oil, avocados, olives, almonds, pecans, seeds, grass fed butter, and more.
I can confidently tell you trans fats are the reason obesity and heart disease have any correlation to dietary fats at all. Trans fats are almost toxic to the body. They are the fats found in packaged and processed foods as well as used to deep fry your nuggets and fries at McDonalds. Trans fats increase your bad cholesterol (LDL) and decrease your good cholesterol (HDL).
You can find trans fats in fried foods, doughnuts, pastries, burgers, pizza, packaged and processed foods. Trans fats are in all partially hydrogenated oils. It's best to eliminate trans fats from your diet.
Saturated fats are what we would call a "yellow light" option. It's not a green light to proceed at any speed, but it's also not a hard stop red light. We were told years ago that saturated fats are terrible for us, but now research shows it is not the same as the fats that are found in our blood and tissues. There are many studies proving that it is not the saturated fats (found in animals) that cause heart disease; a bigger determinant is the effects of carbohydrates and sugar on our blood sugar. Therefore, saturated fats aren't as bad as we were once taught. Saturated fats help with proper hormone function and immunity. We get many saturated fats from whole foods.
My personal rule of thumb: eat saturated fats when they come from whole foods like animal fats, grass-fed butter or coconut. Avoid highly processed foods or dairy (which is highly processed and high in added hormones--yuck!) which also contain saturated fats. These include highly processed cheeses, milks, oils like sunflower/safflower, and palm oil.
Increasing Fat Intake
Now that you understand the importance of healthy fats, it's time to modify your current "low fat" habits. Each meal should have some sort of fat source in it to make sure you are filling up and not reaching for snacks in between meals. By eating meals with fat sources, you'll eat less calories throughout the day because you will be satiated.
My two favorite breakfasts are protein smoothies and eggs. On my busy days, protein smoothies are a go-to. I put protein powder and a substantial amount of fat in the shake to make sure I don't get hungry a few hours later. My favorite fats to use in protein shakes are peanut butter, almond butter, coconut oil or MCT oil. I don't use all of these at the same time. But I will use different sources of fat depending on the flavor of shake I am making.
I also enjoy eggs. When I have more time in the morning, I will make sautée kale and cook eggs sunny side up. The yolk contains about 5 grams of fat per egg. I also dice avocado and garnish the plate with more healthy fats.
I find lunchtime to be extremely easy to add in healthy fats. I love huge salads, so tossing tons of vegetables with nuts or seeds is a great way to increase dietary fat intake. Remember, a little goes a long way in terms of portion size. 1/4 of a cup of nuts rounds out to 190 calories and about 15 grams of fat! Another easy way to add fats to your salad is by using olive oil (& vinegar) as dressing. Portion sizes also apply here; 1 Tbsp. of olive oil is around 120 calories. So use sparingly if you're watching calories!
If I am not having a salad, I tend to eat salad ingredients without the bowl or lettuce. I call these creations, "snack plates". Essentially, building a plate with protein, fat, fiber and micronutrients. An examples would be deli chicken slices (protein), carrots and cucumbers (fiber), guacamole(fat), and hummus (fat), plus a side of kale chips (micronutrients). A plate like this is filling and provides all my needs to keep me full and satisfied until dinner.
Dinner always seems to be the hardest way to incorporate whole fat sources in my meal. At the end of the day, I like to eat protein and vegetables. So the easiest way for me to incorporate fats into dinner is by cooking with them! Using olive oil or avocado oil provides flavor and extra healthy fats to my dish. Another note to remember; Saturated fats are found in animal sources. So by eating red meat, we get added fats in our meals even though red meat is a protein source. Don't fear the type of fat either; you would need to eat a lot of red meat to have it negatively impact your cholesterol.
By increasing your fat intake, you'll remain fuller for longer, feel satiated at the end of meals, and increase your overall health. Adequate fat intake keeps our cardiovascular health in check and helps decrease inflammation and risks of autoimmune disease.
American Heart Association. (2021, November 1). Dietary fats. www.heart.org. Retrieved February 4, 2022, from https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/dietary-fats
Hyman, M. (2018). Food: What the heck should I eat? Little, Brown and Company.
LeVeque, K. (2019). Body love: Live in balance, weigh what you want, and free yourself from food drama forever. William Morrow Paperbacks.