In the 1960s, scientific studies showed a correlation between high-fat diets and high cholesterol levels. It seemed to suggest that eating a low-fat diet would prevent heart disease. This belief soon became deeply rooted in American’s ideology of diet, aggressively promoted by doctors, government, and the mainstream media.
For many years, Americans subscribed to the low-fat diet, even though there was no clear evidence that it promoted fat loss or that it prevented heart diseases. In the next decade, Americans were getting fatter, setting off an obesity epidemic that affected 4 in 10 adults.
So, is it fat that is making us fat? Or is something else the culprit?
What exactly is fat?
Apart from carbohydrates and protein, fat is one of the three macronutrients that is found in the food we eat. Fat is a form of complex molecule that provides the slowest form of energy release for our bodies.
Dietary fat is found in almost all animal products such as meats, eggs, fish and dairy. They can also be found in plant-based foods such as seeds, nuts, olives, coconuts and avocados. Other plant-based foods such as beans and whole grains also contain traces of fat.
In general, there are 3 types of fats – saturated, unsaturated and trans fats.
Saturated fats typically solidify at room temperature and are most commonly found in animal products such as meats, butter, lard, cheese, cream, ice cream, snacks, chocolate, pastries, biscuits etc. They are also found in coconut oil and palm oil.
Unsaturated fats are usually liquid at room temperature, and are found in large amounts in fatty fish such as salmon and cod, avocados, nuts and grains.
Trans fats are often artificially produced during food manufacturing process. Trans fats are mostly found in processed foods such as baked goods and fried food. Trans fats, even in the smallest amounts, are bad for health because of their link to heart disease.
Why are fats important in your diet?
Fat is an essential building block for a healthy, balanced diet. It is an important source of fatty acids, which the body cannot make on its own.
Fat is also necessary to help the body absorb Vitamins A, D, and E. These vitamins are fat-soluble and they can only be absorbed by the body with the help of fats.
Excess fat that is not used by the body will be converted into body fat. Likewise, any unused carbohydrates or proteins that are not burned off, will be converted into body fat.
Eating too much saturated fats can raise the low-density lipoprotein, or LDL levels in the blood. In turn, that can raise the bad cholesterol in the blood, which can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.
On the other hand, consuming unsaturated fat increases levels of high-density lipoprotein in the blood. It reduces cholesterol levels, which improves your overall heart health.
Why is low-fat making people fat?
The biggest problem with “fat-free” or “low-fat” products is that they are also “taste-free”. In order to make them profitable, manufacturers tend to load them with added sugar, salt, and flour.
In the end, the “fat-free” version may have the same energy content compared to the original product. In addition, the spike in sugar level in the blood can lead to excessive hunger, weight gain, and health problems associated with obesity.
The bottom line
Don’t be fooled by product labels that state “low-fat” or “fat-free”. Scrutinize the ingredient list for other ingredients and look at the calories per serving.
Cutting down on trans fats and saturated fats is one aspect of achieving a healthy diet. Opt for minimally processed whole foods as they are naturally low in saturated fats or trans fats. Naturally-occurring fats aren’t harmful to your health if consumed in moderation.
Studies have shown that fad diets that vilify certain foods are often ineffective and may eventually cause rebound weight gain when you are no longer on the diet. Include all types of food in your diet. There is no need to eliminate them from your diet completely. Instead, aim to limit your portion size and enjoy these foods in moderation as part of an ongoing, sustainable diet.