Just Another Four-Letter Word? The Skinny on Fats

Article posted in: Nutrition

If you’re like many dieters, you’ve declared fats your ultimate enemy.

But the truth is, your body needs dietary fat. Not only is it a major source of energy, it is also essential for the absorption of several body-boosting nutrients, including vitamins A, D, K and E. Plus, it plays an important role in cellular function, blood clotting and muscle movement. And those trying to lose weight can thank fats for that satisfied feeling you get post-meal, which may be the very thing that stops you from overeating at the next.

But before you start scoping out some fat-filled fast food, keep this in mind: There are a few different types of fats, and they aren’t all created equal. Some can help improve your health, while others can have the opposite effect. Here’s the skinny on fats:

The Good Fats
Yes, it’s true: There is such a thing! Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) and omega-3 fatty acids, which are liquid at room temperature, serve up some pretty sweet health benefits. MUFAs improve blood cholesterol levels, which may reduce your risk of heart disease. They may also play a role in stabilizing blood sugar, which can help keep your appetite in check, help you learn how to stop eating so much and reduce your risk of developing diabetes. This fab fat can be found in nuts, avocados, olive oil and almond butter.

A type of polyunsaturated fat, omega-3 fatty acids may help lower cholesterol levels and support heart health. Plus, some scientists contend that these compounds may encourage the body to use fat for energy as opposed to storing it. Animal studies have suggested that omega-3s may help reduce body fat even in the absence of calorie cutting. To optimize your omega-3 intake, add fatty fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel or albacore tuna to your plate twice a week. Walnuts, canola oil, flax seeds and fortified eggs also dish out a healthy serving of this fat.

The Bad Fats
Whether you’re trying to diet to lose weight or not, you’d be wise to stay away from trans fats. This type of fat is a byproduct of hydrogenation, a process used to turn healthy oils into solids. Experts agree that consuming foods high in trans fats can increase the amount of bad cholesterol (LDL) and reduce the amount of “good” cholesterol (HDL) in the bloodstream. Research has also established a connection between trans fats and inflammation, a condition linked to heart disease, diabetes and other chronic conditions. Shockingly, research from the Harvard School of Public Health suggests that for every two percent of calories consumed from trans fats daily, the risk of heart disease grows by a whopping 23 percent. It’s no wonder the Food and Drug Administration estimates that phasing out trans fat could prevent up to 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 premature deaths each year.

Worried about your waistline? Trans fats can do some damage there as well. In a study at Wake Forest University, monkeys who consumed trans fats experienced four times the weight gain monkeys fed monounsaturated fats experienced, and had 30 percent more belly fat than the group that ate the MUFAs.

Luckily, the terrors of trans fats have not gone unnoticed. In 2006, New York City banned the use of this type of dietary fat in its restaurants. Many food manufacturers have opted to remove or reduce the amount of it from their products as well. Perhaps the most exciting news is that the FDA has given the food industry until 2018 to phase out this health hazard, unless the producer gets special permission to include trans fats in its products.

In the meantime, you can avoid trans fats by paying close attention to food product Ingredients lists. Trans fats are typically disguised as “partially hydrogenated oils” on these lists, and are commonly found in foods like cookies, pastries and even French fries.

The Gray Area
Commonly found in red meat, whole milk and cheese, saturated fats are solid at room temperature. Past research has suggested that diets rich in this type of fat are associated with an increase in total cholesterol, as well as the “bad” cholesterol (LDL), which can cause complications with the heart and other arteries. However, recent explorations of the relationship between saturated fat and cardiovascular disease have led many to question the association. In fact, in a meta-analysis of more than 20 studies on the topic, researchers reported that there was not enough evidence to conclude that this type of fat increases the risk of heart disease.

While scientists continue to sort out the facts, your best bet is to limit saturated fats from processed meats, but go ahead and enjoy those full-fat dairy products since full-fat dairy products boost some health benefits. In fact, in a 2015 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, people ate the most high-fat dairy products experienced the lowest incidence of diabetes while those opting for low-fat dairy products had the highest incidence. Experts contend that the good-for-you nutrients in dairy (think calcium, protein and vitamin D) require fat with them to optimize their benefits.