Forget what you learned about low-fat, high-carb foods: lots of new research is showing that healthy fats are definitely a part of a good diet.
The Good and Bad Fats
Before we dive in, let’s make some clarifications about what constitutes healthy fat. Whole food, plant-based fats from avocados, nuts, seeds, coconut, olives, and olive oil are the good fats or healthy fats that we’re talking about here.
But what is bad fat? Trans fats (made from hydrogenated oils) are definitely on the no-no list, as are highly processed vegetable oils like canola, soybean, and cottonseed. Often these oils are extracted with chemicals and refined. These vegetable oils are high in Omega-6 fatty acids, which we have in abundance in our diet. Omega-6 fats are good in moderation, but we need to eat them in balance with Omega-3s, which most of us are deficient in.
So if healthy fats are good for you, does this mean you should eat avocado sandwiches with nut butter topped with olives everyday? Of course not, but it does mean is that we can stop worrying about including these wholesome foods in our diets. And it means we need to look at our understanding of fat and our fear of fat. This also means we need to stop falling for ‘healthy’ products labeled low-fat, like cereal, snack bars, and other low-fat processed foods.
Is Fat Really that Important?
For almost half a century, we’ve been told that a diet high in fat and cholesterol is what leads to obesity and heart disease. But new research is showing that healthy dietary fats have a protective factor. Healthy fats are essential to hormone production, healthy skin and hair, lubricated joints and general satisfaction with food, which can lead us to have a better relationship with our foods, since we’re not constantly craving foods to fill a void left by an overly restrictive diet.
Healthy fats make food taste good and lead to more satisfaction with your meals. As anyone on a super low-fat diet can probably attest, it’s hard to maintain a very low-fat diet, which is often why ‘diets’ don’t work. You end up craving all the foods you’ve taken out!
Newer research shows is that it’s actually processed carbohydrates (think white bread, donuts, and fried foods), sugar, and highly processed vegetable oils (like soybean, canola, and cottonseed) that has led to our current health crisis.
I have taught cooking classes for years and two of the most common questions I used to be asked were about fats: “How can I eliminate the fat?” or “Is the fat really necessary in this recipe?” The answer is always the same for my recipes: Yes. Fat is required.
At the time I didn’t have the research to back it up, but among other sources, I recently read Dr. Mark Hyman’s book Eat Fat, Get Thin and was impressed with his detailed look at the research, along with the super in-depth research delving into just how essential good fat is in our diets. I don’t support Dr. Hyman’s diet plan, which focuses heavily on meat and eggs, but many of his points are quite compelling.
You can read my full review of Eat Fat, Get Thin on Vibrant Wellness Journal. If you don’t have time to read the book or my long review, check out interviews with Dr. Hyman on the Urban Monk podcast and the Crave Cast with functional nutritionist Alexandra Jamieson. They’re two of my favorite podcasters!
The Changing Nature of Fat in our Diet
In 2015, the USDA dietary guidelines were changed to remove recommendations about dietary cholesterol or total dietary saturated fat, and new research shows that dietary sources for both do not have an effect on heart disease or high cholesterol. Even the FDA is revisiting their definition of ‘healthy’ foods, especially when it comes to nuts.
Recently the FDA called out KIND bars for using the word healthy on their label. These nut and seed bars are a nice quick snack (even if they are a bit high in sugar), but according to the FDA’s current definition of healthy, these high-fat bars can’t use the word ‘healthy’ on the label.
NPR reports that to use the term ‘healthy’ on the label, “regulations stipulate that it must be very low in fat. The specific rules are complex, but, for instance, a snack food can contain no more than 3 grams of fat for a regular-size serving.” By this definition, most breakfast cereals (loaded with sugar, refined grains, and artificial coloring) are considered healthy. So are candies like Skittles and Sour Patch kids and super processed snack foods like most crackers and low-fat salad dressing. Dairy foods or non-fat ice cream (all loaded with fillers, starches, and SUGAR!) also fit the definition.
Thomas Sherman, an associate professor at Georgetown University who teaches medical students about nutrition, says that low-fast used to mean healthy, and the corollary is that high fat was negative. But he notes that, “Nuts have healthy fats […] that we know are good for cardiovascular health and mental health and are good sources of protein [and they can be] a wonderful component of our diet.” Slowly, even the FDA is getting on board with their health guidelines that recommend eating foods rich in healthful fats.
Want to learn more? Check out some resources from our archives:
Three Properties of Fat you Need to know About
Stop Counting Calories
Low-Fat foods and Digestion
Does a low-fat diet actually Help us Lose weight?
Eat Fat, Get Thin book review on Vibrant Wellness Journal
Why Healthy Fats Make Sense
This is Not Food: Looking at Lean Cuisine