Dietary fat more good than bad

by Stephanie d'Orsay / Columnist • January 31, 2013

There are few things in this country that are vilified as much as dietary fat. Everywhere you turn, there are low-fat versions of all of your favorite foods, condiments, prepared foods, etc. But fat isn’t actually the enemy. Maintaining your health, even if you are trying to lose weight, requires a moderate amount of fat in your diet.

Dietary fat is a nutrient that is essential in allowing your body to absorb and use some of it’s most important vitamins, namely A, D, E, and K. These are known as the fat soluble vitamins, and truth be told, eating a bowl of fruit with fat-free yogurt or combined with fat-free milk is the perfect way to disallow your body to absorb those vitamins from the fruits you are eating. Not only is fat essential for allowing your body to absorb certain nutrients, but it’s also a very efficient source of energy for your body and an extremely important component of many of your body’s systems, not the least of which is your central nervous system (including your brain). In fact, it’s recommended by the USDA that we consume between 20–35 percent of our daily calories from fat.

It’s easy to see the benefits of fat if you break it down to the basic caloric level. Since fat does have more calories per gram than both protein and carbohydrates, of course it seems as though cutting fat intake would be the answer to decreasing calories, and thus losing weight. But according to the Harvard School of Public Health, studies that have examined weight gain and fat intake over an extended period of time have found no correlation between the number of calories coming from fat and total weight gain.

The truth is, including healthy fats in reasonable amounts can actually help you with your weight loss or body composition goals. Not only is fat important for your health, but having a moderate amount of fat with each meal makes your meal more palatable and keeps you satisfied for longer after eating.

Despite this, many people believe that fat is the devil. They consume low-fat versions of their favorite foods, believing this makes them more healthy. In fact, the biggest spike in obesity in the U.S. occurred when the low-fat craze first began in the early ‘80s and ‘90s. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, despite the growing popularity of “low-fat” foods and diets around this time, there was also a sharp increase in the number of overweight and obese Americans.

Unfortunately, because fat enhances the flavor of foods, manufacturers often replace the fat in “fat-free” versions with increased amounts of sugar or other additives in an attempt to retain flavor. Because these sugars (carbs) are digested by your body at a much quicker rate than fats, you may end up getting hungry sooner after eating a fat-free snack, versus one with a combination of protein, carbs, and fats. This could potentially lead to more snacking in between meals, leading to overeating throughout the day.

Of course, there are certain types of fats that should be limited or eliminated completely. Saturated fats, such as those found in red meat and whole-fat dairy products, should be limited to around 10 percent of your diet; trans-fats (mostly found in fast foods and highly processed foods), should be eliminated completely from your diet if possible.

Some options of healthy sources of fat in your diet include salmon, nuts, seeds, nut butters, eggs, avocado, and olive oil. Next time you reach for a bag of low-fat potato chips, or a “100-calorie” pack of cookies, try instead to choose a snack that will incorporate some of these options, such as a handful of almonds, or an apple paired with a tablespoon of peanut butter.

The myth is that fat is the enemy when it comes to health and weight loss. The reality is that good health comes from a balanced lifestyle that includes smart decisions about nutrition, exercise, and general wellness. And yes, that includes eating a moderate amount of dietary fat on a regular basis.