Here’s the “Skinny” on Fats

We’ve become accustomed to thinking that fats should be avoided at all costs. If we want to lose weight or become more lean, we need to cut out all fat from our diet. That’s why food companies started making “fat-free” products, and “0% fat” became the newest marketing trend.

Research now shows that fats are not the enemy. The key is to know which kinds of fats are good for you, which ones you should limit, and which ones you should avoid.

What are fats?

Fats are a macronutrient, meaning our bodies need them. They can be broken down into two categories: saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fats are most commonly found in animal products such as beef, chicken, and pork. Unsaturated fats usually come from plant sources, like nuts and seeds, but can also be found in fish.  

What are they good for?

Fats’ main function is to help absorb vitamins and nutrients into the body, but they are also essential for so much more. They promote eyesight and brain development in young children and aid in blood clotting and controlling inflammation. Similar to its other macronutrient siblings, fats are an essential source of energy.

So why do fats get such a bad rap? Fats are high in calories. They carry with them 9 calories per gram, more than twice the amount that protein and carbohydrates have. However, this doesn’t mean that we should cut out fats and only consume proteins and carbs. Our bodies need fats. It’s only when we have an excess of any of these that we begin to gain weight. Like all else, everything is good in moderation. Let’s get into what kinds of fats we should be eating and which we should stay away from…

Unsaturated fats

Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated are the two types of fats that make up unsaturated fats. They are found in plant-based foods and oils and have shown to decrease the risk of heart disease by improving cholesterol levels and may also aid in controlling blood sugar levels.

Foods rich in these “good-for-you” fats are:

  • Avocado – also called “nature’s butter,” avocados pack a mean punch of healthy monounsaturated fats. They contain oleic acid, which has been shown to control insulin levels and improve blood flow, contributing to better diabetes management, and a lower risk of other diseases.
  • Nuts – including nut butters, contain beneficial polyunsaturated fats. These fats trigger genes that help decrease fat storage in our bodies and can contribute to weight loss.
  • Salmon – pink salmon in particular, is full of heart-healthy polyunsaturated fats, especially Omega-3 fatty acids.  

Saturated fats

The risk of consuming saturated fats has been heavily debated and studied. For awhile, we were told that we should avoid saturated fats (meat, butter and other dairy) as it could increase the risk of heart disease by escalating bad cholesterol levels. However, many studies have also shown that this link doesn’t exist.

So what do we believe? The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that we get 5 to 6 percent of our daily calorie intake from saturated fats per day. They recommend we limit the amount of saturated fats and try to, instead, increase our intake of unsaturated fats that come from plants. However, when choosing which saturated fats to consume, there are some heart-healthier options:

  • Butter versus margarine – if choosing extra virgin olive oil or another omega-rich oil isn’t an option, opt for butter instead of margarine. Margarine is high in trans fat which is very harmful to our health.
  • Whole milk versus fat-free milk – If almond milk isn’t your thing, go with whole milk instead of fat-free. While higher in calories, there is little evidence that whole milk contributes to obesity and an increased risk of heart disease. In fact, one study showed that among 3,333 adults, those who had higher levels of byproducts from full-fat dairy, had a 46% lower risk of developing Type 2 diabetes during the study than those with lower levels.

Artificial trans fats

Unlike saturated and unsaturated fats, which are naturally occurring, trans fats are industrial-made. Trans fats are made when liquid oils are turned into solid fats in a process called hydrogenation. The purpose of this is to preserve the shelf-life of food. It’s secretly hidden in many of the foods we eat each day such as cereals, chips, and granola bars. 

Trans fats contribute to clogged arteries, and clogged arteries increase the risk of heart disease. In addition, these fats increase your levels of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and many studies suggest that it also decreases our levels of “good” cholesterol (HDL). Lastly, trans fat is largely responsible for weight-gain as it redistributes fat tissue into the abdomen.  

Here are some of the worst offenders:

  • Fried food – This food is deep-fried in hydrogenated oils (oils that have been chemically altered to make food last longer). 
  • Pie crust – This one may seem a little out there, but many companies still use hydrogenated oils in their pie crusts to preserve shelf life. Pillsbury’s Frozen Pot Pie Crust carries with it 15 grams of trans fat.
  • Shortening – For the bakers out there, be cautious of the hidden trans fat in shortening. Companies are allowed, by the FDA, to label their products as “0 grams trans fat” as long as they contain less than 0.5 grams per serving. However, at a serving size of one tablespoon for shortening, it’s easy for this amount to start adding up to unhealthy levels.

While it’s easy to think that fats are the source of weight gain, that is largely untrue. We need fats. They give us energy and help us to feel fuller longer by slowing absorption. A good rule of thumb is to try and eat more whole, real foods and cut out processed or fried foods since these contain unhealthy (trans) fats, excess saturated fats, and empty calories. By the same token, we should try to increase our consumption of unsaturated fats – focus on foods like avocado or nuts.  Like most things, fats are best when consumed in moderation.