Fat: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
The Fat Stereotype – “The Low Fat Diet”
Historically fat has gotten a bad rep because of the low fat diet. In 1977, the low fat diet was promoted by a large number of nutritional bodies, even including several government networks in various countries (7, 15). Food companies in countries such as Canada, USA, Australia, and the UK poured large sums of money into marketing the benefits of a low fat diet in order to captivate the population that this was a solution to help lose weight. And how could you blame them? How could you blame an uneducated population with the science behind nutrition still barely in its infancy? Eating less fat equals being less fat. Simple. Obvious. Too easy.
Ironically, this is almost when the obesity and type 2 diabetes epidemics began to take form (15). Some studies suggest that since individuals were seeking low-fat foods, the alternative products consumed were high in simple carbohydrates such as sugar. Today we know sugars to be the leading cause of unhealthy weight and numerous other health problems stemming from poor nutrition (5, 6).
The history of our mainstream media echoes in today’s marketing. An overly simplistic view of following a low fat diet and weight loss is easier to promote to the uneducated public. This is why we still see bogus ads such as “Low Fat” and “99% Fat Free” for processed foods that are high in sugars and preservatives. This view into the past allows us to understand where the negative stereotype of fat originates from. Eating less fat equals being less fat. False.
Disclaimer: A cornerstone to good nutrition is obviously eating healthy foods, but in moderation. It will always ring true that your calorie input verses your calorie output will determine if you lose, gain, or keep weight consistent, no matter where those calories come from. That’s just physics. Please don’t think that by eating more fat you will lose weight. But, some calories are easier to burn off than others and that’s where healthy fats come in.
Simply put, the healthiest fats are unsaturated fats such as monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat (look for them on labels). These types of fats are the easiest for your body to breakdown and turn into energy (4). At rest, your body creates about 70% of its energy by breaking down fat (11, 17). The majority of this fat is supplied to your brain, which is made up of about 60% fat (2). Your brain needs a lot of energy to run and regulate things such as processing fat through your stomach and liver to help create more energy. You can start to see a cycle, I’m sure. Thus, given that unsaturated fats can be broken down into energy faster, you burn fat more efficiently – it’s easier to burn off.
However, it should also be noted that saturated fats fall into a grey area as many studies are still conflicting. Some recent studies show that saturated fats can be healthy when coming from minimally processed sources, such as coconut oil. However, saturated fat from foods that are more processed such as cheese and other forms of dairy should be consumed with more moderation (9, 14).
Metabolizing fat is a complicated process and I don’t mean to make it sound too simple. But, if you can increase your consumption of foods that contain unsaturated fats, you will feel fuller, have more energy, improve your mental health, and provide yourself with the potential to reach the wellness you desire (1, 3, 4, 10, 16).
Foods to look for:
- Unsalted Nuts
- Peanut Butter (100% peanuts)
- Olive Oil (avoid deep frying)
- Dark Chocolate (70% cocoa)
- Coconut Oil
And if you’re looking for other examples of foods and recipes to improve your wellness, check out the Slow Carb Diet and Glycemic Index article.
As previously noted, saturated fats fall into a grey area. This is especially true in how saturated fats effect low density lipids (bad cholesterol) (14). Saturated fats do take longer for your body to metabolize (4), and therefore, unsaturated fats are still the better option. To empower your choice of foods, read nutrition labels to help compare the types of fats that are present in your products.
With that in mind, it is probably best to remember that the most important aspect of nutrition is to select foods that are minimally processed. Foods that don’t require nutrition labels, foods that have a short ingredient list (or at least have names you understand), and foods with not-too-distant expiration dates are the foods you should build your diet around. So for things that are high in saturated fat, such as dairy products and red meat, consume these sparingly.
Trans fats are by far the worst type of fat for your health. Not only does it take longer to break down and dispose of trans fats as energy, but they release less net energy because your body requires more time to metabolize these fats (4). Hence, you feel more tired, have less energy, and you want to eat more to make up for that energy – this could create a nasty snowball effect. Again, I apologize for simplifying how fats are metabolized (I know it’s a complicated biochemical process). However, minimizing your consumption of trans fat has widely been supported to improve health (4, 12, 13).
Moreover, large amounts of trans fat are responsible for significant increased risks of cardiovascular disease, bad cholesterol levels, and even depression amongst many others (16). Now, it’s obvious to think that eating poorly would lead to adverse physical consequences, but how could mental health issues such as depression be associated with nutrition? Research is young, but more and more studies are finding links between microbes (bacteria) found in an individual’s gut and their mental and physical health (3, 10).
Foods to Avoid
- Look out for foods that have long ingredient lists and never seem to go rotten
- Any food deep fried or battered
- Hydrogenated oils (look at the ingredient list)
- Cakes, pies, cookies, doughnuts, and frosting
- Frozen pizzas
- Ice cream
- Microwave popcorn
- Microwave dinners
It can be worrying to think that probably 70%-80% of the food found in grocery stores shouldn’t be considered very healthy (a figure you can come to by comparing how many processed verses unprocessed foods there are). And don’t get down on yourself if you have some ice cream or a cookie or whatever else sometime – I do! But, do so rarely and in mind of your goals and how you feel.
By becoming more educated on the fats in your food and busting myths on the “low fat diet”, you’ll help empower yourself to make healthier choices. You’ve already made a big step by making it to the end of this article.
- Arnos, P., Sowash, J. & Andres, F. (1997). Fat oxidation at varied work intensities using different exercise modes. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 29 (5), S199.
- Chang, C., Ke, D., & Chen, J. (2009). Essential fatty acids and human brain. Acta Neuroi, 18(4), 231-241. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20329590
- Claesson, Marcus J., et al. “Gut microbiota composition correlates with diet and health in the elderly.” Nature 488.7410 (2012): 178-184.
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (1994). Fats and oils in human nutrition. Rome: FAO. Retrieved from: http://www.fao.org/docrep/v4700E/V4700E00.htm#Contents
- Howard BV, Manson JE, Stefanick ML, Beresford SA, Frank G, Jones B, Rodabough RJ, Snetselaar L, Thomson C, Tinker L, Vitolins M, Prentice R. Low Fat Dietary Pattern and Weight Change Over 7 Years: The Women’s Health Initiative Dietary Modification Trial. JAMA. 2006;295(1):39-49. doi:10.1001/jama.295.1.39 (low fat diet)
- Howard BV, Van Horn L, Hsia J, Manson JE, Stefanick ML, Wassertheil-Smoller S, Kuller LH, LaCroix AZ, Langer RD, Lasser NL, Lewis CE, Limacher MC, Margolis KL, Mysiw WJ, Ockene JK, Parker LM, Perri MG, Phillips L, Prentice RL, Robbins J, Rossouw JE, Sarto GE, Schatz IJ, Snetselaar LG, Stevens VJ, Tinker LF, Trevisan M, Vitolins MZ, Anderson GL, Assaf AR, Bassford T, Beresford SAA, Black HR, Brunner RL, Brzyski RG, Caan B, Chlebowski RT, Gass M, Granek I, Greenland P, Hays J, Heber D, Heiss G, Hendrix SL, Hubbell FA, Johnson KC, Kotchen JM. Low-Fat Dietary Pattern and Risk of Cardiovascular DiseaseThe Women’s Health Initiative Randomized Controlled Dietary Modification Trial. JAMA. 2006;295(6):655-666. (low fat diet)
- Kearns CE, Schmidt LA, Glantz SA. Sugar Industry and Coronary Heart Disease Research: A Historical Analysis of Internal Industry Documents. JAMA Intern Med. 2016;176(11):1680-1685. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.5394
- Kinsella, J.E. 1990. Possible mechanisms underlying the effects of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Omega-3 News, V, 1-5.
- Malhotra, A. (2013). Saturated fat is not the major issue. The BMJ. Retrieved 7 December 2016, from http://www.bmj.com/content/347/bmj.f6340
- Mayer, Emeran A., et al. “Gut microbes and the brain: paradigm shift in neuroscience.” The Journal of Neuroscience 34.46 (2014): 15490-15496.
- Melzer, K. (2011). Carbohydrate and fat utilisation during rest and physical activity. European E-Journal Of Clinical Nutritional And Metabolism, 6(2), e45-e52. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.eclnm.2011.01.005
- Mensink, R.P. and Zock, P.L. Lipoprotein metabolism and trans fatty acids. In: Trans Fatty Acids in Human Nutrition, pp. 217-234 (J.L. Sébédio and W.W. Christie (eds.), Oily Press, Dundee, Scotland) (1998).
- Micha, R. and Mozaffarian, D. Trans fatty acids: Effects on cardiometabolic health and implications for policy. Prostaglandins Leucotrienes Essent. Fatty Acids, 79, 147-152 (2008).
- Mora, S., Szklo, M., Otvos, J., Greenland, P., Psaty, B., & Goff, D. et al. (2007). LDL particle subclasses, LDL particle size, and carotid atherosclerosis in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). Retrieved 7 December 2016, from http://www.atherosclerosis-journal.com/article/S0021-9150(06)00259-0/abstract
- National Center for Health Statistics (US). Health, United States, 2008: With Special Feature on the Health of Young Adults. Hyattsville (MD): National Center for Health Statistics (US); 2009 Mar. Chartbook. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK19623
- Sanchez-Villegas et al. (2011). Dietary Fat Intake and the Risk of Depression: The SUN Project. PLOS One, 6(1)e16268
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