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Separating the Fat Facts

Although the current trend in food packaging is "gluten free", not too long ago it was "fat free". The science at the time was that all fats are bad for you, and increase your chance of heart attack and stroke. Our nutrition knowledge has grown, and we now know that some types of fats are essential, while others can be harmful.

NOTE: None of the following should substitute for advice for medical advice. If you have underlying medical conditions, or any concerns at all, speak to your health care provider.

Healthy fats can help you:

  • feel full between meals

  • recover faster

  • improve body composition

  • nourish fatty tissues in your body (e.g., your brain, eyes, skin)

  • absorb certain vitamins, like vitamin D, K and A

  • keep your hormones working smoothly, affecting mood and libido

Naturally occurring fats fall into 3 categories: saturated, mono-unsaturated, and poly-unsaturated.

Saturated fats include butter, coconut oil, egg yolks, high fat dairy, and fats in animal products.

Mono-unsaturated fats include olives and olive oil, avocado, nuts, and peanuts.

Poly-unsaturated fats include walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, and fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, and tuna.

Aim to have an even split of each of these three categories of healthy fats, about 1/3 from each.

Avoid these fats

Processed trans fatty acids were created to make foods have a pleasing flavor and texture more cheaply, and they help products stay shelf stable, longer. Restaurants often use oils with trans fats for frying because they can be used many times in commercial fryers without having to be changed.

Starting in the 1990s we realized that trans fats raise your LDL cholesterol (the "bad" kind) and lowered your HDL (the "good" kind), raise your risk of developing heart disease and stroke, and are associated with increase risk of Type 2 diabetes. The FDA largely banned industrial trans fats from food manufacturing in 2018, but some products are grandfathered in until 2021. Additionally, manufacturers can seek permission to use trans fats if they're unable to reformulate their products.

Your best bet is to read product labels. Don't be fooled if the nutrition facts says 0 Trans Fats. The FDA allows products with 0.5 g trans fats to be labeled as 0. There is no safe amount of trans fats, and, if you're consuming multiple products with some trans fats over the day, every day, it adds up to increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. Look at the ingredients list for shortening, hydrogenated, or partially hydrogenated oil. Ask restaurants if they use trans fat free oil. Limit fried fast food and bakery products, which may contain trans fats.

How to include Healthy Fats in Your Diet

Start where you are and focus on eating healthier fats and pay attention to portion size. Here's an overview of fat sources:

Graphic courtesy of Precision Nutrition

Proper portions

Image courtesy of Precision Nutrition

Fats are calorically dense foods, so portions matter. This is especially true for nuts and nut butters. Many people are under the impression that they're proteins. While they contain some protein, and are a healthy choice, stick to 1 thumb (~ 1 level tablespoon for nut butters) per meal for women, and 1-2 thumbs per meal for men, if you're trying to lose or maintain weight.

Whatever you do, avoid restriction, which will eventually backfire. Keep focusing on one thing at time. Your efforts add up!

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