There's no doubt about it: fear of fats is everywhere. We hear in shocked tones about how much fat is in this hamburger or that doughnut. We are told to throw away nutritious egg yolks, buy nonfat dairy products and use fat-free dressings on our salads. I recently heard a news report describing cereals as "larded with fats and sugars." And the adjective "artery-clogging" is often added, especially to "saturated fat."
We are so used to worrying about the fats in our diet that it has become quite an obstacle to overcome when changing to a lower-carb diet, which is usually higher in fats. People have become so used to hearing about the evils of fats that they are sometimes even afraid to eat an olive or some nuts.
Did you know that your body gets fats not just from fats in the diet, but from excess carbohydrate? If our bodies can't use or store all the carbs we eat at one meal, it gets converted to fat. When it comes to sugar (half of which is fructose), this limit is reached fairly quickly. Eating a very high-carb diet, especially one high in sugars, may easily produce as much fat as actually eating the fat itself. Preliminary research shows that much of the fat converted from carbohydrate is saturated fat.
Most Fats are Not Bad For UsWe are so used to hearing about how bad fats are for us, but the evidence does not really show this to be the case. As is documented in Gary Taubes' book Good Calories, Bad Calories and elsewhere, the science used to promote a low-fat/high-carb diet in the 1980's (actually, beginning in 1977) was sketchy at best. Taken as a whole, Taubes says there was at least as much evidence that fats are not a problem as there was for the low-fat position. It was assumed that over time, the science would emerge confirming the value of reducing dietary fat.
Indeed, if it were the case that fats are bad for us, we would expect the evidence to grow ever-stronger as research progressed. However, what happened was actually the opposite. Every large-scale study intended to be "definitive" on the subject showed that dietary fat did not have a negative impact on health (examples here and here). Even with saturated fats, long been thought to contribute to heart disease, the link has been shown to be weak at best, and may not be present at all.
Are some fats bad? Many experts are now saying we should not eat too much soy and seed oil (e.g. corn and safflower), which are rich in omega-6 fats and may contribute to chronic inflammation in our bodies. Artificial trans-fats (partially hydrogenated fats) are definitely bad news. By and large, sticking to natural fats in whole foods is a good guide to follow.
Good Things About FatsTo hear much of the talk about fats in the diet, you'd think they are a source of calories and nothing more, that it all gets stored to be used for energy. But fats are very valuable. Without going into a long detailed list, here are some of the great things about fats:
1) Fats are building blocks. Fats form an important part of the membranes of all of our cells, and nutrients could not get into our cells without those fats. They also make up a good portion of our brains and nervous systems. Some fatty acids (notably omega-3 fats, and possibly others), have been shown to improve brain function in some circumstances, including improvements in cognitive function, mood and behavior.
2) Fats carry fat-soluble vitamins and phytonutrients (such as beta-carotene). Did you know that if you put an oil-based dressing on your salad, you will absorb more of the nutrients? Fats are an important component of our ability to get all the goodness from the foods we eat.
3) Eat more fat to help you eat less carbohydrate. When the low-fat craze started 30 or so years ago, it inevitably led to people eating more carbohydrates. Ironically, this makes some people (those who are sensitive to carbs) more hungry and gives them food cravings as well, leading to more eating in general. We can start to reverse this by simply turning back the clock to a time when fats were not vilified (and we didn't have nearly the rates of diabetes and obesity of today). Many people find they are less hungry and naturally cut back on calories when they add more fats to their diets.
4) Fats are a source of energy that does not raise blood glucose. For people on the diabetes spectrum (probably anyone with a fasting blood glucose over 89), this is very important. Why ingest the carb and then require insulin to convert it to fat, when you can just eat the fat to begin with?
Tips for Adding Fats to Your Diet1. Eat oil-based salad dressings made with healthy oils - Olive oil based dressings are the best ones, as olive oil is amazingly good for us. More tips of finding and making health salad dressings.
2. Eat fatty fish - Cultivate a taste for salmon, sardines, herring and other fatty fish, which are high in precious long-chain omega-3 fats.
3. Drizzle olive oil on vegetables, seafood dishes and any other foods that strike your fancy.
4. Add avocados to your salad or use them as a side dish.
5. Add nuts like almonds and seeds like flax seed to your diet. (Carbs, Calories and Types of Fats in Nuts and Seeds)
5. Coconut oil and coconut milk have high amounts of a fatty acid called lauric acid, which may have benefits. Contrary to the expectations of some, groups of people who consume a lot of coconut do not have more heart disease.
6. Don't be afraid of animal fats such as those in meats, especially if you are consuming a reduced-carb or paleo diet. Ideally, obtain meats from animals that were eating what they were meant to eat, e.g., grass if they were cows or sheep. This affects the fat content of the meat, as well as being better for the environment and the animals.
7. Eat a balance of fats. As with all foods, variety is better. Despite our perception, all the categories of fats have many different types within them that most of us don't hear about. If we eat a variety of foods, we will be more likely to get a balance of these many fats in our diets.Sources:
Brown, Melody, Ferruzzi, et al. Carotenoid bioavailability is higher from salads ingested with full-fat than with fat-reduced salad dressings. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 80.2 (2004):396-403
Forsythe, CE, et al. Comparison of Low Fat and Low Carbohydrate Diets on Circulating Fatty Acid Composition and Markers of Inflammation. Lipids. 43:1(2008):65-77
Taubes, Gary. Good Calories, Bad Calories. United States of America: Knopf, Borzoi Books, 2007. Print.