If you were asked to think of just one word that described the villain of the typical American diet; just one word that embodied the very worst of the foods that we eat, what would that word be? Many people would answer that question with the word “fat.” The idea that all of our dietary woes are because of fat isn’t something new; in fact we have carried around this mentality for generations. Between the 1950s and 1970s, doctors and scientists began to pinpoint a connection between fat consumption and the development of serious health conditions, such as coronary disease. So, we all jumped on the bandwagon and shunned fattier foods, while embracing lower fat, higher carbohydrate options. Soon, every grocery store aisle was brimming with low fat and no-fat choices.
The problem was that those choices were often high in sugar and sodium, in addition to being highly processed. While we were busy eating a low fat diet, our waistlines grew bigger, our skin began to look unhealthy and we began suffering from obesity related diseases at record high levels. This gave doctors and scientist a reason to stop and reconsider the previous theories about fat. It also gave all of us a reason to look at the all of the different cultures that share this planet and realize that fats are reduced or limited in very few diets other than ours. In fact, in some culinary cultures, fat is a primary component of what is considered a healthy diet. The time came for us to do some serious rethinking about how we approach fat in our diets.
What we discovered was that all of the dietary “science” that we had been following wasn’t actually science at all. It turns out that none of the previous studies were able to prove causation between a diet that was higher in fats and an increased risk of coronary disease. Additionally, when a large group of female dieters were looked at, reducing fat intake did not considerably increase the likelihood of weight loss. In fact, women who ate a higher fat, lower carbohydrate diet were more likely to lose weight and keep it off long term when compared to their fat-phobic counterparts. Does this mean that you should throw caution to the wind and indulge in every fat laden morsel that comes your way? I’m sorry to say that the answer to that question is no. There are still other factors to consider, like the amounts of sugar, sodium and calories that each food contains. It is also important to realize that not all fat is created equal, and you need to be aware of the types of fats that you are consuming. Today, the philosophy is not about eliminating all fat from your diet, and it is also not about eating a diet that is extremely high in fats either. Now, we know that when it comes to our health, beauty and vitality, a moderate approach with a focus on healthy fats is the way to go.
Since shaking off the idea that fats are good can be difficult or even counterintuitive, it is important to take a look at all of the ways that fats are essential for your body. Knowing how beneficial the good fats can be might help you rethink any negative associations you have been carrying around in regards to fats. Here are just some of the ways that your body relies on the right balance of fats:
- Fat is a source of energy and without it our bodies would not be able to carry on vital functions. Your body also relies on fat stores to keep you energized throughout the day.
- Some fats contain essential fatty acids, which are necessary for certain cell processes. Although essential fatty acids are necessary, the human body is not able to produce them on its own, so we must get them from our diets.
- Fat is vital for skin health. Fat supplies the lipids that are necessary for soft, glowing skin and hair. Fats also help to maintain the integrity of cellular structures that control what substances are transported through the skin.
- Your organs, including your skin, rely heavily upon vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E and vitamin K. This group of vitamins is classified as fat soluble. This means that they depend on fat for transportation through the blood stream.
- Fats keep your hormones in balance. You need a certain amount of fats for hormone production. Making sure your diet contains the right balance of the best fats will help keep your hormones, and all of the bodily processes associated with them, in proper balance.
This only begins to describe why fat is so important. Now, what you really need to know is which fats are the “good” fats that we keep referring to and which ones should be avoided. Before answering that question and going any further, now is a good time to stop and talk about moderation. You have probably heard that fats make you fat. Here is the thing; each gram of fat has nine calories. Each gram of protein and carbohydrates has four calories each. So, gram for gram, fat is going to add more calories than protein or carbohydrates. Yes, if you overindulge in fat calories, or any calories for that matter, without balancing it out with a way to burn off some of that caloric energy, then you will probably gain weight. This does not mean that fats make you fat. It means that you have to be responsible for your energy intakes and expenditures while taking into consideration any underlying health concerns that might affect this balance.
Now, let’s talk about the good versus the bad. There are four different types of fats; monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated and trans fats. Here is a breakdown of the different types and which ones you should welcome into your diet and which ones should be avoided.
- Monounsaturated fats: These fats are the good fats that can actually lower your cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of coronary disease. These fats are also excellent for skin health because they help provide necessary nutrients to the skin cells. Many monounsaturated fats are rich in vitamin E, which is a well reputed skin health vitamin. Characteristically, monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and are high in natural antioxidants which help fight free radical damage. You will likely recognize monounsaturated fats by these popular healthy fat versions; olive oil, peanut oil, sesame oil and avocado oil. Monounsaturated fats can also be found in foods such as walnuts, almonds, pecans and avocados. For optimum health, keep these healthy fats as a regular part of your diet.
- Polyunsaturated fats: Polyunsaturated fats are much like monounsaturated fats as far as their health benefits are concerned. The only big difference is that polyunsaturated fats can also be high in omega 6 fatty acids. These fatty acids are important for a variety of functions; however the typical western diet is too high in them which causes an imbalance with omega 3 fatty acids, which are extremely important for your health. Keep polyunsaturated fats in your diet, but choose quality sources and take care to not overindulge. Oils such as soybean, corn and sunflower oils are higher in polyunsaturated fats. A better option than getting your polyunsaturated fats from oils is to get them straight from natural protein sources such as fatty fish, including salmon, mackerel and tuna.
- Saturated fats: This is the first category of what has been traditionally known as the bad fats. In the past, it has been thought that saturated fats were to blame for increasing cholesterol levels as well as increasing the potential for strokes or heart attacks. More current research is leading us to believe that this may not be entirely true. Saturated fats can be just as healthy as other fats, as long as you consume them in moderation. Saturated fats are characteristically solid at room temperature, and are the fats found in butter, cheese, full fat dairy, and most meats. Before eliminating saturated fats from your diet, consider the sources. Some saturated fat sources are so valuable nutritionally that they should not be eliminated from your diet. Again, moderation is key.
- Trans fats: Now, we get to the only real “no” on the list of fats. Trans fats are actually manufactured fats that have been chemically altered to allow a once liquid fat to become and remain solid at room temperature. Trans fats are used in many processed foods because they contribute to a longer shelf life, improved texture and what is referred to as mouth-feel. Trans fats can cause inflammation, which is a precursor to many serious health conditions. Check all of your food labels for trans fats, which may be listed as partially hydrogenated oils. For the sake of your health and your outward appearance, stay away from processed foods and aim for higher quality, natural foods as a main source of your dietary calories.
Knowing the difference between the fats and being able to recognize dietary sources of them is important. It is also important to be able to recognize, from a health standpoint, if you are getting enough good fats in your diet. Again, it is not the bathroom scale that can answer this question for you, but rather an overall assessment of your health and the condition of your skin. Here are a few telltale signs that you are not consuming enough healthy fats in your diet:
- You have dry skin. Dry, red and flakey skin is one of the number one signs that you are not consuming enough good fats. You need fats to maintain healthy skin cells and produce a good amount of lipids, which maintain your skins natural moisture and contribute to a smooth, youthful appearance.
- Your weight loss efforts have stalled. When you don’t consume enough good fats, your body will first rely on the carbohydrates that you are likely consuming instead as the first source of energy. Good fats will help you feel full longer and force your body to tap into those fat reserves you are trying to get rid of as the primary source of energy.
- Your body hurts and you have acne or another inflammatory skin condition. You need the good fats to fight inflammation that contributes to swollen joints, arthritis, acne, psoriasis and so much more.
- You are vitamin deficient. You need fat to process and transport the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Without fat, these vitamins slip right through your system without doing their jobs, causing you to feel lethargic, dull and generally unwell.
- You seem to be suffering from more emotional disturbances. Emotional factors such as anxiety, depression, mood swings, focus, and memory can be strongly influenced by fats. This is because fats help to build the fatty insulation that covers your nerve endings and also helps to build and maintain the structure of brain cells. You need good fats to function at your best on all levels.