In the 1990’s Americans latched onto a low-fat diet in response to research that indicated that reducing dietary fat would be the magic bullet we had been searching for in our quest for weight loss. What we failed to do as a society was recognize the difference between saturated fats, unsaturated fat and trans fat. Instead, the food companies created many low-fat or no-fat foods and hit the marketing scene hard with the message that fat is bad.
In the presence of low-fat and no-fat foods, we got FAT! Currently 2/3 of American adults are overweight or obese and about 1/3 of our children follow this trend. We can partially thank the low-fat craze for contributing to this epidemic. You may also recall from the last blog post that simple carbohydrate consumption (think white foods) can lead to weight gain and is a bigger contributor to this phenomenon than consuming fats, although the two generally tend to go together in someone’s diet.
What is the difference in the fats?
When we think about fats in the diet, we are really referring to triglycerides, which includes fatty acids. The lipid family is made up of triglycerides, phospholipids (similar to triglycerides that play a role in cellular health) and sterols (think cholesterol).
Fats can be characterized by their saturation or firmness. A common saturated fat is butter, which is solid at room temperature, whereas olive oil, which is a liquid at room temperature, is called an unsaturated fat. Here are some examples of the various forms of fats:
Saturated fats: butter, coconut oil, lard, and palm oil
Trans Fats: fried foods, many commercially prepared foods
Monounsaturated: olive, canola, peanut and safflower oils
Polyunsaturated: flaxseed, walnut, sunflower and soybean oils
The Role of Triglycerides in the Body:
The most important job of triglycerides is to provide energy. You may recall from the carbohydrate blog post that carbohydrates provide energy to the body. However, fat provides twice the energy of carbohydrates and protein, about 9 kcal per gram. Fat also provides insulation to our body from extreme changes in temperature. Another role they play is in protection or cushioning to our organs and bones. There is one downside to fat though…we have an almost unlimited ability to store excess fat in the cells of adipose tissue.
Choosing Healthy Fats
Your diet should consist of about 25-35% of your calories coming from healthy fats. Less than 10% of these calories should come from saturated fats. Trans fats should be avoided at all costs! So what are you supposed to eat?
A Mediterranean food plan has demonstrated its benefits for many health concerns including lowering cholesterol, decreasing inflammation, managing diabetes, and reducing risk of cardiovascular disease. Research indicates that this fresh, whole foods diet is low in saturated fat, rich in unsaturated fats, carbohydrates, fiber and phytochemicals. This food plan includes:
Fresh fish: preferably wild-caught when possible. Fish naturally contains Omega-3 fatty acids, hence the Fish Oil supplements seen on the market. Salmon contains one of the highest contents, about 500mg per 3.5 oz. serving.
Nuts: Nibble on nuts as a healthy snack. Just be careful not to overdo it! They also have protein and fiber, making a great food choice. Eating 1 oz. per day has been associated with lower LDL cholesterol levels.
Olive Oil: Rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, this will help to lower total and LDL cholesterol while increasing HDL cholesterol. It is also been shown to decrease inflammation and blood pressure. Use this on salads and with cooking to enhance flavor. Olives have a similar effect.
So are fats your friend or foe? If you choose the right “friends”, you are likely going to benefit from improved health. If you suspect you have some enemies hanging around in your current diet, today is a good time to cut ties with them and make new friends!