Over the past few decades or so, fat — like the dietary kind found in foods like cheese, butter and bacon — has earned a pretty bad rap.
Starting around the 1980s, it was essentially considered the opposite of healthy. Most believed the less fat you ate, the healthier you would be.
“In 1980, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans included recommendations to limit fat intake to no more than 30 percent of calories,” explains Brian Tanzer of The Vitamin Shoppe®, a board certified nutrition specialist with an M.S. in nutritional science. “This resulted in the low-fat ‘craze’ with everything from low-fat cookies and yogurt, to fat-free salad dressing and deli meat. These recommendations found their way into the nutrition programs of hospitals, schools and the military.”
Yet, even though we now know fat is not the evil force it was once thought to be, there’s still quite a bit of “low-fat” backlash, and many people continue to see it in a negative light and unnecessarily avoid it as part of a healthy diet.
“In 2002, Gary Taubes published a book called Good Calories, Bad Calories, which did a thorough review of the research — or lack of research— that led to the 'low-fat diet' conclusions,” says Paul Kriegler, R.D., L.D., C.I.S.S.N., Pn1, the assistant program manager for Life Time Weight Loss at Life Time Fitness. “The summary was that there was actually little clear evidence to justify the recommendation for low-fat dieting.”
So, low-fat diets most likely don’t contribute to better health or weight loss (at least not long-term, sustainable weight loss), but dietary fat still seems to have a stigma that leads people to avoid it.
“By far the most common misconception is that eating fat is not healthy and may lead to weight gain and chronic disease,” Tanzer explained.
“More recent studies show that the consumption of excess refined sugar and calories is a major contributor to the epidemic of metabolic syndrome, which increases the risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”
Of course, there are different types of fat and not all are created equally — some are certainly healthier than others.
“Healthy fats include monounsaturated fat, which is found in avocado and olive oil, and polyunsaturated fats — omega-3s — from cold-water fish, such as salmon and sardines, along with omega-6 fats found in nuts, seeds and some vegetable oils,” Tanzer said. “Small amounts of saturated fats such as coconut oil and butter can be used in cooking and help contribute to satiety.”
The one type of fat that should be avoided, though, is called trans fat.
“Avoid any foods that contain partially-hydrogenated oil, which contains trans fats,” Tanzer said. “These fats have been shown to increase the risk for cardiovascular disease and can be found in packaged food items such as cookies, cakes and donuts.”
When it comes to incorporating healthier fats in your diet, you should also pay attention to the types of animal sources you choose to consume.
“When it comes to animal fats, look for high-quality meats and dairy,” said Katie Goldberg, M.C.N., R.D.N., L.D.N., a Chicago-based registered dietician specializing in weight management, diabetes, postpartum nutrition and wellness. “Organic and grass-fed are ideal, but choose the best you can afford. Grass-fed beef or cheese and butter made from grass-fed cows provides a fat called conjugated lineoleic acid (CLA), which may help with weight loss and cholesterol levels.”
Why Your Body Needs Fat
Not only is fat not bad for you, but it plays an important role in keeping you healthy.
“Fats are an important component to a healthy diet,” Tanzer explained. “Fats provide essential fatty acids that serve important biochemical functions in the body, and they also help the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A,D, E and K along with key components of fruits and vegetables.”
Goldberg noted that not consuming an adequate amount of fat could create difficulties with your body’s ability to absorb those vitamins.
“These vitamins are crucial for the normal and healthy development of your eyes, bones and red blood cells, as well as your ability to form a clot when you get injured,” she said. “In addition, it could lead to issues like lethargy, depression and insatiable appetite.”
Maintaining a Healthy Weight
As Goldberg pointed out, incorporating healthy fats in your diet provides a better sense of satiety. “Which means you may actually eat less and still feel satisfied,” she said.
That said, keep in mind: just because a fat is considered healthy, doesn’t mean it can’t contribute to weight gain.
“When eaten in moderation healthy fats will not result in weight gain and fat storage,” Tanzer said. “Just because these fats are healthy, doesn’t mean if eaten in excess they wouldn’t lead to weight gain. They should be consumed in moderation. One should pay close attention to the types and quality of fat in food. Keep in mind, the majority of low-fat and reduced-fat food contains excess sugar and/or sodium.”