In the 80’s, the “low-fat” trend started. It made sense: eat less fat, gain less fat. Except that’s not how it exactly works. Fat is an essential macronutrient for sustaining normal bodily functions like hormone balance, nerve communication, energy, and insulation. Eliminating it from our diet is nearly impossible and impractical because most low-fat or no fat foods supplement the fat deficit with added sugar. Yup! That breakfast muffin but it’s most likely loaded with twice the amount of sugar than a regular muffin. Why? On the food science level, fat and sugar add flavor and texture to food, so when one is missing, the other is increased.
A healthier approach to fat is to change the TYPES of fat that we consume. There are three types of fats: (1) saturated, (2) monounsaturated, and (3) polyunsaturated [with two sub-categories of omega-6 and omega-3]. There are more complex differences between these fats, but simply put, saturated fats have no double bonds between its carbons, monounsaturated fats have one double bond in its chain, and polyunsaturated fat have more than one double bond. It’s very important to note that fats/oils like animal fat, palm oil, coconut oil, olive oil, canola oil, shortening, etc should never be classified as “good” source of fat versus “bad” sources of fat because they don’t just have one type of fat. Instead, all fats/oils have a different RATIO of all three saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats. Knowing this, you can choose your fat/oil sources that are higher or lower in certain types of fat.
Generally, we eat more saturated fats, like butter or animal fat, than any other fat. Higher intake of saturated fat has been linked to increased risk of heart disease and other health risks when combined with excessive intake of calories. Additionally, we tend to eat omega-6 in excess of omega-3’s. Omega-6’s are present in vegetable oil (think french fries, potato chips etc). Conversely, Omega-3 fats (linoleic/alpha-linoleic) have been linked to heart health benefits like reducing risks of heart attacks. Monounsaturated fats have been linked to lowered LDL cholesterol (which we want to be lower).
This is another issue of BALANCE, so switch it up! Instead of always using butter, which has a higher proportion of saturated fat to mono/poly, try occasionally using olive oil, canola, sunflower, or soybean oil. In terms of food sources, consider swapping out red meat with fish and nuts (higher in omega-3 polyunsaturated fats) and avocados and olives (higher in monounsaturated fats).
Don’t get me started on trans fat (partially or completely hydrogenated oil) which is so much of our processed food. Trans fat is probably the only fat I’d label as a “bad” fat. If you see it in your food, throw it away and run in the opposite direction. With all foods, fats, and oil, read the label to find out what types of fat is used.
Check out the chart above to see a comparison of fats/oil.
NASM Certified Personal Trainer