Confused about fat? That’s understandable. After all, it wasn’t long ago that we were told that all fat was bad. Now we’ve gone from fearing fats to praising them, and everywhere in-between (looking at you, coconut oil).
But one thing is for sure: not all fats are created equal.
Your body needs healthy dietary fats (think, avocados, omega-3s, nuts, and seeds). These healthy fats provide a bounty of benefits, such as boosting energy levels, curbing cravings, supporting the immune system, and lowering “bad” cholesterol.
So why have you been told for the past several decades that fat is bad?
If you’re on the fence about fat and its many benefits, read on to find out more and turn (healthy) fat into your friend.
The myth of low fat
The United States has had an unhappy relationship with fat throughout the years. This war on fat began with the rise of heart disease during the 1950s. Fat took all the blame for this, as the American Heart Association, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and U.S. Senate went on the attack and discouraged eating fats.
By February 1980, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans was issued. The pamphlet recommended against consuming saturated fats, including red meat, full-fat dairy, eggs, and butter.
What followed was a low-fat movement, swapping every full-fat item on grocery shelves for low- or nonfat alternatives. There were low-fat counterparts for everything from butter to cookies.
But these “healthier” options weren’t healthy at all. What these products lacked in fat, they made up for in refined sugar and simple carbohydrates.
And this low-fat crusade did the exact opposite of what was intended: it contributed to widespread obesity.
One recent study examined 135,000 adults in 18 different countries to determine the effects of a low-fat diet. The study found that those who follow low-fat diets consume too many simple carbohydrates and not enough vital nutrients. In fact, according to this research, low-fat diets increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and early death.
A 2010 review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that saturated fat has no direct link to heart disease, disproving the entire foundation for the initial war against fat. In fact, studies like this one suggest that all the things we replaced these fats with — refined sugar, trans fat, and starches — are the real culprits for heart disease.
The science of fat
So, what exactly is dietary fat, and what role does it play in your diet?
Fat is an essential part of the human diet. It provides your body with energy and aids in the absorption of vital nutrients. Fat is one of the three macronutrients alongside protein and carbohydrates.
The body can’t produce essential fatty acids naturally and therefore must rely on dietary fats. The role dietary fat plays in the human body includes:
- Providing energy. Fat is the most concentrated source of energy for the human body, providing double the energy content of the other macronutrients, carbohydrates and protein.
- Absorbing vitamins. Fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamin A and D, rely on dietary fat for intestinal absorption. A person who doesn’t get adequate fat intake in their diet can become deficient in these crucial vitamins.
- Supporting cognitive health. Healthy essential fatty acids like omega-3 and -6 support overall brain function. An imbalance of these crucial fats is linked to impaired cognition and disease.
- Balancing hormones. Hormones such as estrogen and testosterone are produced from cholesterol.
- Aiding in healthy skin. Fat plays a crucial role in skin health by supporting skin cell membranes, providing moisture, and acting as an anti-inflammatory.
‘Good’ fat vs. ‘bad’ fat
Not all fat, however, is created the same. Even though the aforementioned myths about fat have been debunked, it’s important to know the differences between “good” fat and “bad” fat.
Fat can be divided into three major groups: saturated, unsaturated, and trans:
- Saturated fats are solid at room temperature.
- Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature.
- Trans fats (also known as partially hydrogenated oils) are primarily artificial fats that are mostly found in highly processed foods.
Trans fats are considered the worst kind of fat. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of trans fat in the United States: as of June 18, 2018, companies are no longer permitted to use artificial trans fats in their new products. (Products made before this date have until the beginning of 2020 to comply.)
Unsaturated fat is generally referred to as “good” fat, while saturated fat is “bad.” But it’s not quite that simple:
- “Good” (unsaturated) fats comprise all unsaturated fats, including monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These fats mainly come from fish (omega fatty acids), vegetables, nuts, and seeds. These healthy fats have been shown to lower cholesterol and support heart health.
- “Bad” (saturated) fats are not so black and white, though. Recent studies show that saturated fat falls somewhere in-between. Common sources of saturated fat include whole-fat milk, red meat, cheese, and coconut oil.
The link between saturated fats and heart disease has been rebutted by several studies. However, it’s important to note that saturated fat should be consumed in moderation and that unsaturated fat has been proven to be healthier, overall, for the human body.
‘Good’ fats turned ‘bad’
When this war on fat began, high-fat foods were swapped for “healthier” alternatives and highly processed, low-fat counterparts.
Some “bad” foods that we thought were “good” include:
- Low-fat milk. We were told to opt for low-fat milk over full-fat options. But studies now show that full-fat dairy actually lowers obesity risk and reduces the risk of developing diabetes. It’s even been suggested that we may gain weight using low-fat milk because we compensate for lost fat with increased carbohydrates.
- Margarine. When we were told that butter was bad, we reached for the next best thing: margarine. But to keep these oil-based margarines solid at room temperature, they were full of harmful, low-density lipoproteins (LDL)-raising trans fats. Not all margarine is still made this way today, but it’s very important to check your labels.
- Vegetable shortening. It’s made from vegetables, so it’s healthy, right? Not quite. Like margarine, shortening can contain trans fats and is generally made from soybean, cottonseed, and refined palm oil. There will be more on these below.
- Vegetable oils high in omega-6. These oils include soybean, corn, cottonseed, canola, sunflower, and peanut oil. Oils high in omega-6 can create an imbalance of the vital omega-3 and omega-6 ratio, leading to chronic inflammation and increasing the risk of heart disease and obesity.
‘Bad’ fats turned ‘good’
But it’s not all doom and gloom. It turns out that we were also wrong about certain other high-fat foods. After all, where would we be without avocado toast?
As mentioned, the low-fat myths about milk have been debunked, and we know that full-fat dairy can decrease the risk of obesity and diabetes. It also has fewer additives. Try an organic brand like Horizon DHA Milk, which has DHA Omega-3 to support heart, brain, and eye health. You can find it here.
In both oil and whole-food form, avocado is full of delicious benefits such as vitamins, potassium, fiber, and heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids. Avocado oil is also great when used in salad dressings and as a high-heat cooking oil. Primal Kitchen’s 100 percent pure avocado oil is cold-pressed to preserve all of its antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats. You can find it here.
Tallow and lard
If you follow the paleo diet, both tallow and lard are your friends. But even if you don’t, there is still room in a balanced diet for these two fats. We recommend Epic’s grass-fed version, which boasts both saturated and monounsaturated fat. You can find it here.
Bone broth isn’t just soup. Perhaps you’ve seen it turned into popsicles or sipped as is for overall health support. That’s because of all of the amazing benefits of collagen-rich bone broth and its anti-inflammatory amino acids. New to bone broth? Give Kettle & Fire’s 100 percent grass-fed, organic broth a try. You can find it here.
Just like milk, when it comes to yogurt, it’s better to reach for the full-fat stuff. If cow milk products don’t agree with you, give Redwood Hill Farm a try. Their whole-fat kefir yogurt is made from goat milk and includes a large number of probiotics per serving. You can find it here.
The myth of low-fat and nonfat foods as healthier alternatives to full-fat foods have been debunked in numerous studies.
While fat is good for you, it’s important to understand the difference between “good” unsaturated fats (typically found in fatty fish) and “bad” trans fats (typically found in highly processed foods).
In short: It’s best to stick to a quality, balanced diet, full of real, whole foods.
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Tiffany La Forge is a professional chef, recipe developer, and food writer who runs the blog Parsnips and Pastries. Her blog focuses on real food for a balanced life, seasonal recipes, and approachable health advice. When she’s not in the kitchen, Tiffany enjoys yoga, hiking, traveling, organic gardening, and hanging out with her corgi, Cocoa. Visit her at her blog or on Instagram.