Last month’s post on sugar was such a hit that I thought this month we’d talk about fat. I’m sure you remember the low-fat diet craze of the 1990s – nonfat cheese, “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” spray, nonfat chips, and low-fat EVERYTHING. You may have read last year how the sugar industry paid Harvard scientists to downplay the emerging research connecting sugar intake and heart disease and blame fat instead. Now, consumers are more confused than ever about fat. Let’s dispel some of that confusion!
Fact: Eat healthy fats for heart health. Eating more healthy fats like olive, canola and avocado oils, avocado, nuts and seeds, hummus, olives, and fatty fish more often and decreasing saturated fat and refined carbohydrates (like sweets and other white foods like rice, bread, pasta, crackers, etc.) is one of the best things you can do for heart health and to decrease inflammation in the body.
Myth: Eating high-fat foods makes you gain weight. Even though fat has more calories per gram than carbohydrate or protein, fat has a satiating effect, making our meals feel more satisfying. Case in point – whenever you have a low-fat meal, you’re starving an hour later! Adding fat to your meals will help you go longer between meals and snacks and focus on nutrient-dense foods. Also, having fat with meals and snacks will allow you to absorb more of the vitamins and minerals in the food you eat. Rather than go for nonfat yogurt or salad dressing, go for the high-fat counterpart and enjoy the feeling of fullness (and not to mention improved taste!).
Fact: You need to watch your portion sizes. Because fat has more calories packed into a smaller portion, you should be mindful of portion sizes. Keep in mind that you’ll also need less to satisfy you. In general, keep to an open handful of nuts or seeds (with your fingers spread apart), an ounce of cheese, a couple teaspoons of olive or canola oil, a quarter of an avocado, and a couple tablespoons of hummus.
Myth: Butter is back. Contrary to the popular Time Magazine headline a few years back, butter is not back. The article looked at people who gave up butter and other saturated fats like red meat, but didn’t pay so much attention to what they replaced them with. Most of the study’s participants ended up eating more nutrient-void carbohydrates instead. To sum it up: choose heart healthy fats and limit red meat, butter, fried foods, and tropical oils.
Fact: Steer clear of trans fat. This is one topic everyone can agree on: trans fat is harmful to your health. Food manufacturers started adding it to foods to make them more shelf-stable. They didn’t realize they were creating an artery-clogging food substance. Trans fats have been banned by the Food and Drug Administration, effective spring 2018. In the meantime, avoid any foods that have the words “partially hydrogenated” in ingredients list. These are often found in shelf-stable baked goods, frozen pizza, and some stick margarines.
Myth: Fat-free and low-fat dairy are better than full-fat. Even though milkfat contains a lot of saturated fat, it turns out that the saturated fat in dairy doesn’t lead to increased cholesterol. Also, when food manufacturers remove fat from dairy, they add sugar to make it taste better. We know we need to include fat in our diet to stay fuller and absorb more nutrition, so choose the full-fat yogurt over the nonfat one!
Myth: Coconut oil is the best choice. I’m sure you’ve read about the health benefits of coconut oil, but the research isn’t solid. To translate from the super-science-speak, we discovered that coconut oil isn’t as bad as other saturated fats, but that still doesn’t make it as good a choice as olive, canola or avocado oil. Use coconut oil every once in a while food flavor, but make the others your every-day cooking oil.
Bottom Line: Enjoy a mostly whole food, plant-based diet. Eat plenty of plant- and fish-based fat at every meal and most snacks, moderate amounts of dairy fat, and red meat and other saturated fats on occasion. Avoid trans fat by looking at ingredients lists and choose fewer sweets. This will help you look and feel your best, inside and out.