During the time in my life when I did struggle most with my weight (college), and when I began to actively fight weight gain, I avoided fats like the plague. I would not touch anything with nuts in it, meats were out of the question, and so was most dairy. If I ever “splurged” on fat, it would be for something super-sweet… like a milkshake or a piece of chocolate cake.
I have learned since that this is SUCH a terrible strategy for caring for the body. Not only does the body want fats… it needs them. There are quite a few different kinds of fats, and with the exception of trans fats, which humans were never intended to consume AT ALL, our body needs all kinds of fats in order to thrive.
The secret to fats is pretty simple, and we probably all already know it: more unsaturated (good) fats, less saturated (bad) fats. Here is the scoop:
The foods we eat contain four main types of fats: saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and trans fats. Each fat family has its own characteristics and effects on our health. The first three fats: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated, should be a part of every diet. And, as mentioned before, trans fats should be taken out of the diet completely. Not only do we not need them, but they are actually harmful to our bodies.
The foods we eat contain about two dozen kinds of saturated fat. Foods rich in saturated fat include fatty meats (bologna, bacon, prime rib, sausage, steak, etc.), and solidified animal fat (lard), which is found in whole milk, butter, and cheese. Some plant-based sources of saturated fat are coconut oil, coconut milk, palm kernel oil, cocoa butter, and palm oil.
Our bodies need some saturated fat. Eating it IN MODERATION is good for the body. We should eat less saturated fats (by far) than monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat. Saturated fats should account for about 8 percent of our daily calories.
Good sources of monounsaturated fats are olive oil, peanut oil, and canola oil. Avocados, nuts (such as cashews and almonds), and seeds (such as sesame and pumpkin) are wonderful sources of these healthy fats. Eating monounsaturated fats in place of trans fats or carbohydrates has even been proven to boost female fertility.
The two most important families of polyunsaturated fat are omega-3 fats and the omega-6 fats. Although our bodies need polyunsaturated fats, they cannot make them, so we must get them from food.
Good sources of omega-3 polyunsaturated fats are cold-water fish such as sardines, salmon, and chunk light tuna. Plant sources of omega-3 fats include flaxseed, walnuts, and canola oil. Eating soybeans and soy products also provides the body with both omega-3 and omega-6 fats.
Polyunsaturated fats lower levels of harmful cholesterol (LDL) in the body, and increase levels of productive cholesterol (HDL). Omega-3 fats are a crucial part of cell membranes and help regulate what goes in and out of cells. They provide the body with raw material for hormones that regulate blood clotting, the contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and inflammation. They also protect heart-functioning by helping to prevent the electrical impulses that give the heart its stead “beat now” signals from going awry.
While saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats come from plants and animals, most of the trans fats we eat come from industrial vats. They are the by-products of a chemical reaction used to change liquid vegetable oil into a solid of stabilized oil so they will not spoil. Trans fats are incredibly bad the the heart and arteries.
Trans fats are found in hard margarines, as well as in many commercially made baked goods (cookies, crackers, doughnuts). They are also found in restaurant fried foods, and especially in fast foods. The average American consumes about six grams of trans fat per day. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the Institute of Medicine recommend eating as little trans fat as possible, not exceeding two grams per day, and zero is even better. Eating even a modest amount of trans fat in place of other, more healthful nutrients (like polyunsaturated fat, monounsaturated fat, or healthy carbs) can dramatically decrease good health over time.
About 40% of what we find on supermarkets’ grocery shelves contain trans fat. New regulations (put into effect in 2006) require that food labels list trans fat along with saturated and unsaturated fat, carbs, cholesterol, protein, etc. Nowadays, restaurants and food packages boat “No trans fat.”
Since the FDA does not require that food packages indicate trans fat if they contain less than a certain amount, it is still important to read the ingredients list before we buy. Even if a label says “Trans fat: 0grams,” if the food contains “vegetable shortening” or “partially hydrogenated oil,” it contains trace amounts of trans fats. And even trace amounts are too much.
- Read food labels.
- Don’t bake with shortening.
- Steer clear of fried foods when eating out.
- Have red meat sparingly, and replace it often with fish or beans.
- Keep serving sizes modest.
- Think in oils (olive, canola… use them in place of butter)
- Nuts are good!
- Omega-3s are great too. We should try to eat at least one good source of omega-3 fats every day.
- Emphasize monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats.
- Eat less saturated fats, but do eat them.
- Avoid trans fats completely!
Sources: The Fertility Diet, The No Sweat Exercise Plan: Lose Weight, Get Healthy, and Live Longer, Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Macronutrients).