Fats are bad, right? Well, you may be surprised to learn that actually all fats are not bad for you.
In fact, fats are an important part of a healthy diet. In the 1970’s the U.S. Dietary Goals suggested that a lower fat diet was a healthier way to eat. During the years following that recommendation, “low-fat” became a craze and food manufacturers jumped on it by reducing the fats in their most popular products and marketing those products as healthy. The problem was that as they took fats out of our favorite foods, they often added sugar to maintain the flavor we had come to expect (we now know that sugar is one of the biggest fat making culprits in our diet). Consequently, with the boom in processed foods in the United States, and the often confusing and misunderstood labeling laws, Americans jumped on the low-fat bandwagon only to find themselves more unhealthy and more obese than ever before. In fact, the National Center for Health Statistics has reported that in 2011-2012, 69% of adults in the United States were overweight or obese.
Here’s the good news, doctors and scientists are now learning that it isn’t eating fat that makes us fat and unhealthy, it is the kind of fat we are eating. Namely, fats and oils used in processed and fast foods. The truth of the matter is that good fats are GOOD for us and can be incorporated in our diets in many wholesome and delicious ways. Good fats are good for our hearts, our brains and our nervous systems, they help us maintain a healthy metabolism, they help build healthy cells, they have anti-inflammatory properties, and they are insulin regulating, among other things.
So, let’s begin with the fats we should be avoiding. We should be staying away from artificial trans fats and oils. We should also steer clear of saturated fats that are found in fast foods and processed foods. Some examples of where bad fats may be found include:
- Commercially-baked goods
- Packaged snack foods
- Solid fats such as stick margarine and vegetable shortening
- Fried foods
- Pre-mixed products like cake and pancake mixes
- Anything with “partially hydrogenated” oil listed in the ingredients
On the flip side, the fats we should be seeking are those rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, often called “essential” fatty acids. If we are eating animal products, we should be striving to eat grass fed animal products when possible as they are higher in these omegas than their grain fed counterparts. Many plant based fats are very rich in omegas and can be a delicious option. The same holds true for some fish.
Some examples of foods where good fats are found are:
- Nuts and seeds (remember that peanuts are not nuts, they are legumes)
- Nut butters (no additives, just the nuts is preferable)
- Wild caught (especially cold water), fatty fish such as salmon and sardines (Steer clear of farm raised as they are fed grain [usually corn and soy] and do not have the same levels of omega fats as their wild counterparts which eat other fish)
- Olives and extra virgin olive oil
- Dark chocolate (should be more than 70% cocoa)
There is a lot of information out there regarding fats and oils, obesity, food labels, etc., and it can be very confusing. One thing to remember is that because the labeling laws in the United States can be confusing, reading the list of ingredients before eating any product is very important. Remember that the ingredients are listed in order of their content in the product with the first being the highest.
The key to understanding healthy eating is educating ourselves and having an open dialogue with our own health care providers. The low-fat craze of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s was an exciting & hopeful road, however well intentioned, but we now have an opportunity to turn that around and understand what good fats are and why they are important for our good health.