Fat is yet another nutrient that’s gotten a pretty bad reputation over the years. Do you remember not so long ago the fat-free craze when every box and package turned a signature dark green and proclaimed ‘Fat-Free!’, which really meant ‘eat as much as you want!’ Yes, we did just that, and ended up eating lots of unsatisfying, sugary processed foods which did nothing for our health (not to mention our waistlines).
Did you know that each and every one of the cell membranes in your body is mainly comprised of fatty acids? The composition of the fatty acids in your cell membranes is directly affected by the types of fats you eat every day. While there certainly are “good” fats and “bad” fats to consider, limiting fat intake overall isn’t necessarily a good idea for everyone. Fat doesn’t make you fat! Here are 3 good reasons why not to eat a low-fat diet (less than 20 percent of total daily calories):
- Stable energy and moods. You just ate breakfast an hour ago, but you’ve already got that low blood sugar feeling. One of the reasons this can happen is you’re not eating enough fat. Fat slows down the rate of digestion, helping to keep your blood sugar from rising and dropping rapidly so you avoid feeling irritable and your energy level stays steady.
- Enjoyment. Without a doubt, don’t leave fat out – your taste buds will thank you! Without fat, food can be flat and flavorless, lacking richness, depth and texture. Fats and oils used during cooking readily disperse the fat-soluble flavor molecules found in herbs and spices, thus the flavors in the food appear more gradually and linger longer.
- Weight maintenance. As Chrissy Weiss pointed out in a recent post, keeping the pounds off after losing them is indeed the bane of every dieters’ existence! She pointed out a new study that found that a very low-fat diet was less effective than a low glycemic index diet at keeping the pounds off after weight loss. This has to do with the effect on metabolism – the low GI diet increased caloric burn more than the low-fat diet did. Fat also increases satiety, or the feeling of fullness after eating, so you won’t want to snack all the time.
How much fat to eat exactly? Strive for at least 20-35 percent of your daily caloric intake*. That’s around 45-75 grams of fat (3-5 tablespoons oil) per day based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Working with a healthcare professional can help you consider your unique dietary needs, and is especially important if you have a specific medical condition.
Just as important as quantity is the quality of the fats you eat. Since every cell in our body depends on fat, the quality of the fats you eat is of the utmost importance to your overall health. Simply put, cells will not function properly without the right types of fats in their membranes. They can’t communicate well with other cells and with hormones, such as insulin. This dysfunction is a key factor in many modern diseases, affecting everything from our skin and eyes to our brain to our heart and reproductive system.
So how do you optimize the fatty acid profile of your cell membranes?
Focus on getting a good balance of the following:
- Monounsaturated fats (olives and olive oil, avocados, tree nuts such as almonds and cashews, peanuts, seeds)
- Omega-3’s (wild cold-water fish, flaxseeds and walnuts, grass-fed animals, wild game)
- Saturated fat (coconut, grass-fed animals, cocoa butter in chocolate)
At the same time:
- Avoid refined vegetable oils like corn and soybean (found mainly in processed and fast food).
- Avoid all sources of trans fat (margarine, shortening, anything partially hydrogenated).
- Limit saturated fat from conventionally-raised animals.
Focus on Quality:
- Prevent heat, light, and oxygen exposure – the three enemies of fats and oils that produce rancidity, or damaged oils.
- Some fats are extra delicate such as the unsaturated types, so avoid heating these fats to high temperatures (such as using flaxseed oil for cooking!).
- Store unsaturated fats in green or brown glass containers, and don’t keep them over 3 months on the countertop. Buy them fresh and use them quickly.
- Look for brands of oil that take measures to prevent rancidity (damage from heat, light and oxygen) with natural refining methods. We like Spectrum brand oils.
Some ideas for adding healthy fats to your diet:
- Add a couple of avocado wedges to a strawberry and banana smoothie.
- Use virgin coconut oil for sautéing and baking.
- Have some dark chocolate – an ounce per day has been shown to lower cholesterol and blood pressure.
- Top steamed veggies with a pat of butter from grass-fed cows (aka pastured butter – higher in omega-3 fats).
- Have a small handful of raw cashews with your apple for a mid-morning snack.
- Eat a Zing bar – you’ll get a serving of healthy fats from nuts, balanced with low-glycemic carbs and protein.
* based on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Erin Hugus, MS, CN has a Master’s degree in Nutrition from Bastyr University. Erin is an expert in Diabetes care and is passionate about empowering people with realistic strategies for optimal health. She takes great pleasure in her time spent in the kitchen and loves cooking nourishing meals for her family.