Every time I give a lecture or talk on diet, people always want to know about dietary fat – the fat we eat. Not surprising. Fat is the dieter’s nemesis and remains the headliner of the “Foods That Are Bad for Your Health” list. If you’re reading this, I’m sure you’ve been told at some point or another to eat less fat. That’s what we’ve all been told. That’s why “fat-free” and “low-fat” foods are such a hot commodity. But you also may have heard of healthy, or so-called “good fats.”
So, are you supposed to be eating fat, or what?
If you are, how do you choose between good and “bad fats?” If you aren’t, why does the evidence support the superiority of high-fat diets in fueling weight loss and fighting disease.
The Confusion is Real
Given all the confusion around fat, it’s no wonder so many people feel overwhelmed. How about just eat everything in moderation and don’t worry about it, right? We survived this long with French fries, pizza and (insert other delicious “high-fat” food). If you feel this way, I certainly don’t blame you, and I definitely won’t judge you. Trust me, I’ve been there.
Here at That Salad Lady, we don’t vilify foods – this includes high-fat foods. In fact, one of our “Guiding Principles” is for you to have space to learn about all foods without being judged for your individual choices. It just so happens that fat is one of our “Five Bowl Basics.” It’s a must-have ingredient in each and every one of our recipes. Besides the fact that fat makes everything taste better, your body actually needs it to function properly. Really, it does.
By now you probably realize I’m in the “eat fat” camp. Since we’ve cleared that up, let’s talk about how to choose (and eat) your fats wisely for maximum health. The more you learn about fat, the more you’ll learn to love it.
The Simple Skinny on Fat
As a vital macronutrient, fat helps the body absorb the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K), which are naturally housed in whole foods. This is one of the main reasons you’ll find fat in all our salad bowl recipes. Collectively, the fat-soluble vitamins support healthy growth, immune function and even reproduction. Needless to say, a fat-restricted diet can cause deficiencies in these vitamins and, thereby, impair the vital functions they support.
Though a dietary necessity, there’s no denying that fat comes with a high calorie tally, particularly when compared to carbohydrates and protein. In other words, high-fat foods are inherently high-calorie foods. Indeed, every gram of fat yields about nine calories while carbs and protein only yield about four per gram. So, a food with 10 grams of fat and 10 grams of carbohydrates would contain a whopping 90 calories from fat but only 40 from carbs or protein.
From this example, logically you’d assume that fat-free or low-fat foods are better, especially if you’re trying to lose weight. But there’s much more going on beneath the surface (and the skin).
Different Fats, Different Effects
Fats are not all created equal – even fats with equal calorie counts. Different types of fats are housed in different foods and each type affects your body differently. While certain fats promote weight loss and lower disease risk, others trigger weight gain and can potentially damage your health. So, there’s no sugar-coating it: A calorie from fat is not just a calorie from fat. Hence, the general labeling of fats as being either “good” or “bad.”
Let’s take a bit of a deeper dive into that.
“Good Fat” Versus “Bad Fat”
Taking mere labels at face value, the obvious assumption is that consuming a “good fat” is better than consuming a “bad fat,” right? But which is which and why? You’d think such a simple question could be met with a simple answer. Truth is, understanding the logic behind the labels starts with first understanding that there are two main types of fat naturally found in the foods we eat (dietary fats): (1) saturated and (2) unsaturated fats.
Foods are generally comprised of some combination of both saturated and unsaturated fats. Even plant-based foods contain saturated fat if you can believe that – though not a whole lot of it. Foods containing mostly unsaturated fat are typically liquid at room temperature (olive and canola oils) while those largely comprised of saturated fat tend to be solid (coconut and palm oils).
Unsaturated fat is further classified as either monounsaturated (MUFA) or polyunsaturated (PUFA). The latter includes omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Besides the two broad classifications of fat, there’s a third type: trans fats. Also known as “partially hydrogenated” fats, trans fats are essentially artificial fats that are chemically manufactured from unsaturated fats. Though derived from unsaturated fats, trans fats are solid at room temperature.
Now, the “good” versus “bad fat” labels are basically related to the unique compositions of saturated, unsaturated and trans fats. Generally speaking, trans fats and, in most cases saturated fats, are labeled unhealthy or “bad” while MUFAs and PUFAs are considered healthier alternatives or “good fats.”
As is commonly the case with all things diet, it’s never just black and white. So, let’s go beyond the labels a bit and talk briefly about each of these fats.
A combination of different fats, MUFAs have long been shown to protect against heart disease, diabetes and various cancers. These beneficial effects are largely due to the chemical structure of MUFAs and the combination of phytonutrients housed in MUFA-rich food sources which have powerful antioxidant, ant-inflammatory, cholesterol-lowering, blood sugar-regulating and, believe it or not, fat-burning effects.
Oleic acid is the most common MUFA in nature and is widely present in olive, avocado, and other plant-based oils. In addition to these oils, while olives and avocados, most nuts and seeds (their butters too) are among the richest sources of MUFAs. Here at That Salad Lady, MUFAs are salad bowl staples and all “good” by our nutrition standards.
As I’ve already mentioned PUFAs include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. These fats collectively support heart health, brain function and metabolism in addition to normal development and growth from infancy through adulthood. Both are “essential” fatty acids since your body doesn’t naturally produce them. But, in the case of omega-6s, unfortunately, you can have too much of a good thing.
Excess intake of omega-6 fatty acids can cause body-wide inflammation. This is where the “good fat” narrative starts to get a wee bit complicated, as chronic inflammation is a major driver of most diseases (heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s and cancer). This is not to say that omega-6s are any less ‘essential’ than omega-3s. However, when it comes to consuming these PUFAs, there’s an ideal balance to shoot for.
Consider the ideal balance to be somewhere between 1:1 and 4:1 (omega-6-to-omega-3). As a point of reference, the average ratio of most Americans is somewhere between 10:1 and 20:1.
Without going down the rabbit hole, here’s what I want you to know: All PUFAs are inherently “good” when there’s good balance in your diet. The best way to achieve balance is to take in more omega-3s than 6s. You can do this by simply eating a variety of foods. Dense sources of omega-3s include oily fish, walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds and whole soy foods while omega-6s are widely present in animal-based foods, some nuts and seeds, and most vegetable oils.
Due to an inherent ability to raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, also called “bad” cholesterol (yup, another bad thing), mainstream medicine has long deemed saturated fat as a major cause of heart disease. This is the sole reason why it bears the shameful “bad” label. What’s less talked about is the fact that saturated fat also raises high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, also called the “good” cholesterol, an effect that could actually offset a rise in LDLs.
Despite widespread belief, little evidence directly links saturated fat with positive or negative effects on heart health. As often is the case, the health effects of saturated fat-rich foods are often conflated with eating fried foods, sugary baked goods and processed meats.
Consider red meat, which, as you may already know, is high in saturated fat.
Though red meat is an excellent source of quality protein, B vitamins, antioxidants and countless other health-promoting nutrients, it’s a long-standing ‘boogeyman’ of the Western diet. Red meat itself is not the problem. Problems arise when red meat undergoes heavy processing – even then, processed varieties don’t necessarily pose significant problems until they’re consumed in excess.
Here’s what I want you to take home: Natural sources of saturated fat, including unprocessed meats, full-fat dairy foods and coconut oil, do not increase heart disease risk. Time and time again, evidence has proven this. Here at That Salad Lady, we say saturated fats are “good fats.” Just choose them wisely and eat them in sensible amounts. If you enjoy your occasional red meat and cheese, eat them. Know these foods won’t put you at any greater risk of poor health.
When all’s said and done, eating trans fat-rich foods is much more of a contributor to disease and poor health than saturated fats could ever be. Let’s talk more about those.
Widely present in commercially baked goods (cakes, cookies and crackers), fried foods (French fries, chicken and doughnuts), shortening (Crisco) and stick margarine, artificial trans fats are actually well worthy of their “bad” label – even though I generally dislike such labeling. Trans fats are a type of solid fat that your body can’t break down. Over time, these fats accumulate leading to increases in LDLs and triglycerides (fat in the blood).
There’s no debate: Trans fats are bad for your health. A diet laden with trans fats increases your risk of heart disease, breast and colon cancers, nervous system disorders, diabetes, obesity, pregnancy problems and even allergies. Now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that some trans fats are naturally occurring, formed by bacteria in the guts of certain animals. Trace amounts of these might be present in some animal-based foods but pose no risks to health.
When in doubt, check your food labels. If a product contains “partially hydrogenated” fats or oils, then it contains the bad stuff.
So, What’s the Bottom Line?
I threw a lot of information at you – so here are some points to ponder. Though fat has been vilified for decades and treated like the bad stepchild of the macronutrient family, truth is, regular consumption of fat is essential for disease prevention and overall good health. Eating fat will also give you satisfying feelings of satiety (fullness) and keep your food cravings at bay, which supports healthy weight management.
When it comes to consuming fat, it’s all about how much you eat and the general quality of your diet.
But remember, all high-fat foods drive up calorie counts – whether “good” or “bad.” General guidelines suggest limiting your intake of total fat to 25-35% of your daily calories. In accordance with these guidelines, saturated and trans fats would comprise less than 7-10% and no more than 1%, respectively. At the very least, following these guidelines will help you meet the minimal requirements for fat in a healthy way.
However, it’s also important to understand that these recommendations are general guidelines and not necessarily global standards. Many countries and regions follow diets with relatively higher intakes of fat without added weight gain or health risks.
For instance, people in Mediterranean regions take in daily averages of 35-40% of calories of fat. It’s also worth noting that their diets are especially rich in omega-3-rich food like olive oil, avocados and nuts as opposed to omega-6-dense foods. Interestingly, their diets are also relatively higher in saturated fats but much lower in added sugar and practically devoid of trans fats. Definitely ideal.
At the end of the day, choosing your fat matters. As you’re browsing our recipes and blogs, you’ll get plenty of ideas on how to choose (and use) fat. Over time, it’ll get easier to better monitor your overall intake.