Dietary fats can be a confusing topic. You know it’s good to get healthy fats, but the broad selection of nonfat and low-fat products at the grocery store can make you second guess your purchases. In the back of your mind you might be wondering if the low fat salad dressing is better, and won’t eating more fat make you, well, fat?
Start With Healthy Fats
“Dietary fat is a necessary and healthy component of a balanced meal plan and is essential for a number of basic functions in our bodies including cell structure and function and hormone synthesis. Healthy fats can also reduce inflammation, lower our risk of heart disease and stroke and keep us feeling fuller for longer,” said Katy Brown, DO, an endocrinologist at Samaritan Weight Management Institute. “The key is to choose the right kind of dietary fat.”
Polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats are the heroes here and are found naturally in a variety of plant and animal foods such as:
- Olive oil.
- Nuts and seeds.
- Dairy – milk and cheese.
- Red meat.
Some fats, like omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, are essential fats. This means the body needs these to survive but cannot make them on its own – you have to get them from the foods you eat.
Avoid Artificial Trans Fat
Another type of fat called trans fat occurs naturally in small amounts in dairy, beef and lamb.
You are probably more familiar with artificial trans fats, which are plant oils that have been industrially altered to be solid at room temperature and less likely to become rancid. These trans fats are used most often in packaged goods to improve texture and shelf life, and to deep fry food at restaurants.
Even small amounts of artificial trans fats can be harmful and should be avoided because they can raise LDL cholesterol levels, lower HDL cholesterol levels and increase your risk for developing heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes, according to the American Heart Association. The organization reported naturally occurring trans fats have not been linked to these harmful effects.
The most common place to get artificial trans fats is from commercially prepared products, like packaged bakery goods. In some cases, claims of “0 grams trans fat per serving” on the front of a package are due to a loophole in labeling requirements for small amounts of trans fat. You’ll have to read the ingredient list and check for “partially hydrogenated oils” to see if the product contains trans fat.
Saturated Fat: It’s Complicated
Experts agree that polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are good for you and trans fat is bad for you.
Saturated fat, however, has more of a checkered past. For decades, health authorities have advised eliminating saturated fat found in meat, dairy, coconut oil and palm oil because of concerns it may increase the risk of a cardiovascular event.
Recent studies examining the relationship between the saturated fat you eat and how it affects cardiovascular risk factors and risk of death, have led researchers to consider the link between cardiovascular health and dietary saturated fat might not be as clear-cut as was previously thought.
A review published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology noted there is not enough evidence to support restricting saturated fat, and the group recommended paying more attention to eating whole, healthy foods to reduce cardiovascular disease rather than eliminating saturated fat from the diet.
“There are many different types of fat that fall under the saturated fat umbrella; some are better for you than others,” said Dr. Brown. “It helps to look more broadly at food as a whole rather than isolating individual nutrients.”
For example, a serving of beef tenderloin and a packaged cupcake both have about 2 grams of saturated fat, but the beef contains other beneficial nutrients while the cupcake does not.
“You don’t have to completely cut saturated fat out of your diet, but you do want to make sure when you look at your plate that what you’re eating is providing quality fuel for your body,” said Dr. Brown. “There are healthy foods that provide excellent nutrition and also contain some saturated fat, which isn’t necessarily harmful for most people in small amounts.”
Dr. Brown notes that processed meat like sausage, bacon and hot dogs is still considered harmful and should be avoided.
“There is consistent evidence that a high intake of processed meat – more than three servings a week – contributes to a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes or cancer,” she said.
Low-fat Foods to Skip
Fat-free ranch dressing or coffee creamer, reduced fat granola bars, baked potato chips or nonfat frozen yogurt – are these healthier options?
Use caution with packaged foods that advertise being nonfat or low-fat. These use salt or sugar to improve the flavor, and the lower fat content is often negligible. What’s more, the idea that the product is “healthy” might mean you eat more than you would otherwise, noted Dr. Brown.
“There’s a trade-off that happens in processed foods between carbohydrate and protein and fat,” said Dr. Brown. “What’s reduced in one area, like fat, is increased in another, like carbs (sugar). The net effect is not a healthier product.”
Hold up a bag of reduced fat cookies, crackers or chips to their traditional counterpart and you’ll likely find slightly lower calories and fat, and slightly higher carbohydrates and sugars. These are fast carbs that move through your system quickly, spike your blood sugar and leave you hungry again relatively soon. Instead, Dr. Brown encouraged passing over packaged and convenience foods in favor of whole and minimally processed foods.
Load up on These Low-fat Foods
Some foods like legumes, vegetables, fruits and whole grains are naturally low in fat. These are excellent building blocks for a healthy diet and should be the majority of the food you consume.
“Filling about three-quarters of your plate with plant-based whole foods will help you eat a lower fat diet with a better nutritional profile than trying to reduce fat in packaged foods. Just be mindful about adding in some of those healthful foods with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats like fish and nuts,” said Dr. Brown.
Some types of low-fat dairy like part skim cheese, low-fat yogurt and reduced fat milk can also be a good choice, although Dr. Brown noted full fat dairy products are fine for some people who don’t have any special health needs or specific medical concerns. If you do, talk with your doctor. Make sure to choose plain, unsweetened products.
Will Eating Fat Cause Weight Gain?
According to Dr. Brown, the fat your body creates to store energy and the fat you eat are not the same. When it comes to energy balance and weight, the total amount consumed (calories) is more important than the macronutrient distribution of fat, carbohydrate and protein.
“The research consistently shows that a reduced-calorie, whole foods-based meal plan that is sustainable for an individual is the best marker for long term weight management success ,” she said. “Fat makes food taste better and helps you feel full longer, so you’re more likely to stick with your nutritional goals if you include healthy dietary fats. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats have clear benefits and can be feasibly added to most dietary or cultural eating patterns.”
In your daily life that means a serving of plain, unsalted nuts as a snack and homemade salad dressing with extra virgin olive oil may look high in calories but can actually help you meet your weight goals.
When to Watch Your Fat Intake
Serving size still matters, even with healthy foods, so be sure and stick to recommended portion sizes for fats.
In addition, some people are more sensitive to saturated fat and may need to limit their intake. Your primary care provider can help you determine if you need to limit how much saturated fat you eat, suggested Dr. Brown.
How to Use Healthy Fats
Dr. Brown recommended some of her favorite ways to add healthy fats to your diet:
- Make homemade salad dressing. Experiment with extra virgin olive oil, walnut oil, flaxseed oil or tahini, a sesame seed paste.
- Spread nut butter or sliced avocado on toast.
- Dip whole grain bread in extra virgin olive oil mixed with herbs or balsamic vinegar.
- Eat Greek yogurt for breakfast.
- Eat a handful of nuts as a snack.
- Add fish to your diet.
- Add a scoop of goat cheese to soup or salads, or grate some fresh pecorino on top.
“A positive eating pattern draws from all of the food groups including fats and oils,” said Dr. Brown. “If you’re not sure what goes into a balanced meal don’t be afraid to ask for help; what you eat is one of the cornerstones of your health and wellness.”
Learn how to make healthy meals and other lifestyle changes to support your weight loss journey with Precision Wellness, a 16-week, evidence-based program at Samaritan Weight Management Institute.