Low fat. Reduced fat. No fat. These labels are all over grocery stores playing into our fears that eating fat is bad for us. When did we become so scared of fat? And is this fear justified?
We need fat to live. There is no getting around that fact. It’s our main source of energy, and gram per gram, provides more calories than protein or carbohydrates (9 per gram compared to 4 for protein and carbohydrate). It’s also needed for many functions within your bodies, such as helping your impulses travel rapidly through your nerves as part of the myelin sheath.
Back in the 1950’s a war was brewing. It was between fat and sugar. On the line were billions of consumer dollars for the food industry that won. Sugar came out on top as fat was villainized for causing high cholesterol, heart disease and early death. Sugar was our saviour.
As a result, high fat foods were replaced with sugar and we were bombarded with commercials telling us fat is the bad guy. Dietary guidelines followed suit saying to eat no more than 30% of daily calories from fat.
We’ve since learned how bad sugar is for us as well as other refined carbohydrates (white bread, white rice, simple cereals). But fat was still something to be avoided.
In recent years, the lobbying tactics of the sugar industry have been exposed. Numerous studies in the 1960s and 1970s paid for by the sugar industry implicated fat as the culprit for heart disease and downplayed the bad effects of sugar. And even the research of famed Dr. Ancel Keys who is considered the founder of the link between fat and heart disease has come into question.
Later we were told not all fats are created equal; some are good fats, such as mono- and poly-unsaturated fats, and some are bad fats, such as saturated and trans fats. This led the foundation for the ground-breaking studies of the Mediterranean diet.
The Mediterranean diet focuses on fish, healthy oils/fats such as avocados, olive oil and nuts, and plant-based foods. Compared to the recommended low fat diet, the Mediterranean diet resulted in a reduction in heart attacks and early death in people with heart disease as well as preventing heart disease in those without it. In these studies, people ate more than 35% of calories from fat. Definitely not a low fat diet.
There are still guidelines that caution us on saturated fats. These are fats predominantly from animal products. Although recent studies call into question if, and how bad, having these fats in your diet actually are.
Studying diets is hard. Mainly because we need food to eat. With smoking, the message is simple; stop smoking. Same with physical activity; be more active. With food, you can’t just tell someone to stop eating. If you cut something out, usually you replace it with something else. The key is whether it is replaced with something that is healthier or not.
This appears to be the case with saturated fat. Saturated fats have been found to be associated with heart disease and early death in some but not all studies. However, if your replacement is polyunsaturated fats (such as found in fish, nuts and seeds), this might be a healthier choice. If you use carbohydrates, and particularly sugars and refined carbohydrates, this may actually increase your chances of heart disease and early death.
Since most of those are association studies, we can’t say for sure that saturated fat is good or bad. And because of researchers like doing research, this debate may go on for years longer. However, most will agree that eating foods high in processed carbohydrates is the least healthy choice.
Of course there is widespread agreement for us to limit or even avoid; trans fats. Trans fats are most commonly found in processed foods. Hard margarine and baked goods are examples. Trans fats comprise only a small amount in our diet but pack an unhealthy punch by raising the bad cholesterol (LDL) and lowering the good cholesterol (HDL). As a result, if you eat a high amount of trans fats, it increases your chances for early death and disease.
Since most trans fats come from food processing and are not naturally occurring in food, changing food processing practices opens the door to reducing trans fats. Indeed, countries such as Denmark and Canada have begun to ban these fats to improve the health of their populations.
However, when we eat, we eat whole foods. We don’t eat fats or proteins or carbohydrates in isolation. These come in foods along with other nutrients that our body needs. It’s more important to look at what you eat as a whole rather than focus on any one aspect. And if you’re eating foods as close to their natural state as possible, for most people, there should be no need to count grams or calories from fat.
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