Fat. Often labeled as "the bad guy," much like carbs, it can get a bad rap, but the truth is we need healthy fats to support healthy body function! It's time to shed some light on fat and differentiate the good from the bad so you can be empowered to make healthier food choices that will support a healthy heart (and waistline!) for the long haul. Get ready to bust the fat myth and learn all about healthy fats!
Good and Bad Fat. You have probably heard fats referred to as “good” or “bad,” but what does that mean? Let's start with the good: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat. These are classified as “good" fats because they have been shown to be beneficial to heart health, healthy cholesterol levels, and play an important role in our overall health. Saturated and trans fats, on the other hand, are classified as “bad" fats because these fats have been shown to increase risk of heart disease, clog arteries, elevate bad cholesterol levels, and negatively impact overall health. In fact, studies have shown that even small amounts of trans fat can lower good cholesterol (HDL) and raise bad cholesterol (LDL), increasing risk of heart disease and stroke. Yikes! That is why The American Heart Association recommends saturated fat consumption be limited to 5-6% of daily calorie consumption. For example, if someone who consumes 1600 calories a day that equates to about 10-11 grams of saturated fat...and that fat can add up quickly!
Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, a.k.a. the "good fats" are most commonly found in:
Nut butter and seed butters
The saturated fat and trans fats, a.k.a. the "bad fats," are typically found in animal products:
Fatty cuts of beef, pork and lamb
Dark chicken meat
Whole fat dairy products
Deep fried foods such as french fries, doughnuts and fast foods
Pre-packaged snack foods such as candy bars, cookies, crackers and microwave popcorn
Baked goods such as pastries, muffins, pizza doughs, cakes and breads
The lightbulb! You may have noticed that the good fats are commonly found in healthier foods, items that come from animals, plants or trees, whereas the bad fats are often in items that come from boxes, bags or fast food restaurants. Are you having an "aha!" moment? Now that you know what foods commonly contain those good or bad fats, you are empowered to make healthier food choices, and I hope feel more confident when it comes to shopping for, preparing and consuming foods in healthier ways!
Tips for success:
Read and understand those nutrition labels. It is important that we not only know what type of fat we are consuming, but also how much. Did you know that fat packs 9 calories per gram? That's more than any other macronutrient, so we want to be mindful of just how many of our daily calories are coming from fat vs. other macronutrients to support healthy caloric balance.
Know your numbers. The USDA recommends healthy adults obtain 20-35% of their daily calories from fat, limiting saturated and trans fat intakes to just 10%. How do you know where you fit in that range? A few general guidelines are if trying to lose weight you will want to stick to the lower end of that spectrum, whereas athletes or individuals looking to maintain their current weight will likely be somewhere in the middle or upper end of the spectrum. Other factors to consider are your current health and energy needs. A health and fitness professional can better help you determine what daily intake of fat percentage is appropriate for you and give you a caloric range of fats to aim for.
Question -so are non-fat foods healthier? The real question here is does low or non-fat equate to healthy? The short answer is no. While food trends and clever advertising might make you think fat is the enemy, it is not that black and white. In recent years more and more food companies have been trending toward fat-free and trans fat-free versions of their products, recognizing consumers desire to reduce their fat intakes. Unfortunately this does not always translate to removing unhealthy fats or overall healthier food items. Take a look at those nutrition labels and get a real picture as to what you are signing up for. What might they be replacing that fat with? Sugar? Salt? Loads of ingredients you can't pronounce? While removing the bad fat from a food product is a great start, it is just as important that we aren't simply swapping one bad ingredient for another. So remember to read those nutrition labels.
The take home - despite clever marketing and dietary fads, fat is an essential macronutrient:
Fat protects our vital organs
Fat provides the thermal insulation that helps us maintain core body temperature
Fat is the body's primary energy source while at rest and during steady states of low to moderate intensity exercise
Fat supplies essential fatty acids, which in turn supports our ability to efficiently absorb fat-soluble vitamins and form cell membrane structure
Fat gives texture to our food and promotes satiety
Bottom line - so while the word “fat” may conjure up less than desirable images, it is important to recognize the essential role it plays in sustaining our overall healthy and well-being. When we consume healthy fats in moderation, understand the values of good vs. bad fat, and recognize the importance of maintaining a well-balanced diet that incorporates each of the essential macronutrients – healthy fats, complex carbs, and lean proteins – we are able to best support our body’s healthy function reduce our risk of disease. So go ahead and nosh on some nuts, throw some avocado on that green salad, grill up some salmon or drizzle a bit of olive oil over your greens, your healthy heart will thank you!