We are now living in the ‘post-low-fat era’ (my term). Numerous authors and magazines have pointed out the striking contradiction over the last several decades that the low-fat trend in foods has correlated with Americans becoming more overweight than ever. But despite statistics and daily observations that show this to be true, I think it is hard for many of us to shake the belief that cutting as much fat as possible out of our diets will make us healthier. To be fair, there are still some high-profile nutrition authors who espouse the low-fat diet (Dean Ornish, for example), so clinging to the low-fat concept does not mean one is simply dwelling in the past. But to-date there have been some fabulously comprehensive meta-analyses of popular weight loss diets, and the low-fat plans simply do not garner the results of their low-carb competitors (for an example of this research, see Gardner et al., 2007, Journal of the American Medical Association). So just to remind and reassure myself and others who strive to eat healthy and maintain a healthy weight, here is a recap of the now-debunked ideas about fat:
Myth #1: Eating fat makes you have more body fat
An oldie-but-goody. I think many of us still imagine this as we say things like “these fries are going straight to my thighs!” But as many of us now know, fat is one of the three major nutrients (the other two being protein and carbohydrate) and does not directly translate into increased body fat. Fat, like carbohydrates, is an energy source. It is actually a much more efficient source than carbs, and will be burned slowly through physical and mental activity (yes, your brain burns calories!) Because it is energy, it will be used as needed and then the extra will be stored for later use. This happens with carbohydrates too, so either nutrient can become body fat if the calorie levels taken in exceed those burned. Basic, right? But the whole slow-burning trait of fat is an important one. Unlike carbohydrates, fat can provide an energy source with excellent endurance and is an especially vital part of the diet of active individuals.
Myth #2: High-fat foods are addictive
I would revise this to say “high-fat processed foods are addictive”. But as it stands, high-fat foods that are actually foods (i.e., prepared at home, not in a laboratory or factory) are usually reported as being highly satiating, and therefore cause individuals to consume fewer calories overall. This concept is well illustrated by the low-fat snack phenomenon. Many folks I know who bought into the low-fat trend by purchasing boxes of low-fat cookies and the like found themselves eating an entire box at a time. They usually attribute this to the reduced guilt of eating something “healthy”, but I would guess that the highly-processed and low-fat content of these snacks just never made them feel full or satisfied.Cooking a meal with butter and oils and cheese may seem like sacrilege to the health-conscious, but if that meal leaves you full and satisfied after a small portion then it can be a very healthy choice after all.
Myth #3: All fat is the same and all should be avoided
This is probably the most important myth to be debunked. This myth has led dieters I know to avoid eating things like avocados and nuts because they are high in fat! The truth is that plant fats like those found in olive oil, avocados and nuts are very healthy for our bodies. And even animal fats, which have gotten a much harsher reputation, are quite beneficial in reasonable amounts. The one type of fat that I DO feel should be completely avoided is hydrogenated fat. Hydrogenated oils (also called trans-fats) are typically canola or palm oils that have had their molecules bonded with hydrogen, a process that extends their shelf-life exponentially. But this process also makes the oils much more prone to causing dramatic and dangerous health consequences. There have actually been large deposits of artery-clogging fat found in teenagers who ate diets high in hydrogenated oils, so just imagine the impact on heart disease rates for older adults! These fats are in countless food products, so the only way to steer clear is to read the labels on EVERYTHING. I personally avoid hydrogenated oils like the plague…
Myth #4: To lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, stick to a low-fat diet.
People still believe this, despite evidence to the contrary. Counting fat grams throughout the day is still a common practice. For folks eating a lot of red meats and processed foods, this fat gram count may be beneficial. But for those of us who have a less-processed diet, avoiding fat may actually be counterproductive. I believe that the key to losing or maintaining weight is to feel full after eating nutritious, good-tasting meals. Fat can be nutritious, and if adding it back into your meals allows you to feel satisfied after eating, it can help with weight loss or maintenance. If there is a nutrient to be concerned with limiting, research suggests that nutrient is carbohydrate. By cutting down on starches and sugars your body will have to use fat as an energy source more frequently. If you are using enough energy (i.e., being active enough), eventually your body will be using the fat you have stored, and voila–loss of body fat! To be fair though, some folks have seen positive results from low-fat diets and there is evidence suggesting that for some genetic profiles, low-fat may be the way to go. So if low-fat works for you, great! But if you, like the majority of weight-conscious Americans, have embraced the low-fat trend without much success, it’s time to let go of the myths and rethink your relationship with fat.