Wait, didn’t experts tell us we should cut back on fat?
A. Chances are you’re thinking of the fat-free craze of the 1980s and ’90s. That all started when the government advised scaling back on fat in its 1977 Dietary Goals for the United States, with recommendations that were based on a string of studies linking fat and cholesterol with heart disease, heart attack and stroke. Remember the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food pyramid plastered in doctor’s offices, in the school cafeteria and on the side of cereal boxes? Its guidelines reflected the thinking at the time: At the bottom was bread, rice, cereal and pasta—foods Americans were told to center their diets around. The tip of the pyramid included fat and oils, which we were instructed to use sparingly. This advice led people to trade their eggs and bacon for cereal with skim milk for breakfast, swap pretzels for potato chips at snack time and order pasta instead of steak for dinner. The food industry also jumped on board by removing fat from its products. Fat-free items, such as salad dressing, yogurt and cookies like SnackWell’s—the poster child of the craze—flooded grocery store shelves. “But when you take fat out of a food, you also cut out much of its deliciousness,” explains Lily Nichols, RDN, a registered dietitian, Pilates instructor and owner of the Pilates Nutritionist. To make up for the flavor shortage, manufacturers added other ingredients, like sugar, flour and salt, to their foods.
Why Is A Low Fat Diet Recommended? Photo Gallery
The result: Americans ate less fat and more carbohydrates, often in the form of sugar and white flour. This may explain the country’s expanding waistline. “Today’s obesity epidemic was caused, in part, by the low-fat era,” says Cimperman. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of obese Americans soared during that time, from roughly 15 percent in 1976 to 35 percent in 2012. Rates of type 2 diabetes also skyrocketed.
Q. Why did the opinion on fat change?
A. When scientists studied these low-fat diets, they uncovered surprising results. For one, they didn’t deliver the expected health benefits. “Experts found that decreasing fat intake didn’t reduce the risk of chronic diseases,” says Cimperman. Case in point: A series of studies published in 2006 in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that women put on a low-fat eating plan didn’t have more protection against heart disease, breast cancer or colorectal cancer. What’s more, they didn’t lose any more weight than those not on the diet.
Q. Does fat have any health benefits?
A. Put simply, you need fat to survive. That’s because the nutrient has many crucial jobs. It gives you energy, helps regulate your body temperature, and protects your bones and organs. It also plays a role in fertility. “Plus, fat keeps your hair and skin healthy,” says Mascha Davis, RD, a registered dietitian, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and owner of Nomadista Nutrition.
As if that wasn’t enough, fat allows your body to absorb important nutrients, such as vitamins A, D, E and K. These nutrients do everything from fortify your bones to fend off cancer. They also boost levels of heart-healthy antioxidants: According to a 2004 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, people who ate a salad topped with full-fat dressing had higher levels of lycopene and carotenoids than those who drizzled on a reduced-fat version.
So, does this mean I should slather coconut oil on everything?
A. Unfortunately, these benefits don’t grant you an all-access pass to fat. It’s important to know that there are different types, says Davis. There are two main categories that have opposite health effects.
Saturated and trans fats are the “bad” kinds, found mainly in animal products and processed foods, such as steak, bacon and store-bought frosting. Saturated fat is also found in tropical oils, such as the new “it girl” fat, coconut oil, as well as in palm oils. Palm oils are found in everything from so-called healthy “butter” substitutes to packaged cookies. Saturated fats up the amount of artery-clogging LDL cholesterol in your blood, which can set the stage for heart attacks and stroke. According to a 2016 Harvard study, for every 5 percent increase in saturated fat you add to your diet, your risk of heart disease jumps by 17 percent.
Trans fats are even worse: They lower the goodfor-you HDL cholesterol, which helps keep your arteries clear. They’re so unhealthy that the FDA has banned added trans fats, a regulation that goes into effect nationwide in 2018. Until then, steer clear of products containing partially hydrogenated oils, a code name for trans fats.
On the other hand, unsaturated, or “good,” fats may boost your heart health. There are two types: Monounsaturated fat is found in olive oil, avocados and nuts. Polyunsaturated fat is the kind in soybean oil, fish, walnuts and flaxseed. Experts recommend making these fats your main source. In fact, a 2017 study published in Circulation found that replacing saturated with unsaturated fat can reduce the risk of heart disease by 30 percent. That’s the same effect as taking a cholesterol-lowering medication.
Q. Doesn’t eating fat make you fat?
A. The idea that fat has a one-way ticket from your lips to your hips is a myth. Any nutrient, whether it’s a fat, carbohydrate or protein, turns into fat if you consume too much of it. It is true that fat is calorie dense. It contains nine calories per gram, while protein and carbohydrates contain only four calories per gram. But a moderate amount won’t cause you to pack on the pounds.
Eating a little more fat may even help you slim down. In 2001, Harvard researchers found that women on a moderate-fat diet lost about 30 percent more weight than those on a low-fat plan. They were also more likely to stick with the plan over the course of 18 months. “Fat takes longer for your body to digest, so you feel satisfied for longer,” says Davis. That can prevent you from overeating and snacking later on, which means you take in fewer calories all day long. “You’ll feel less hungry,” says Nichols. “When you eat more fat, you’ll wind up taking in fewer carbs.”
Q. On the flipside, will eating a high-fat diet help me slim down?
A. Atkins, Paleo, Whole 30: High-fat, low-carb diets have gotten a lot of buzz over the past few years. These eating plans recommend getting the majority of your calories from fat, some from protein and very few from carbs. On very restrictive diets, your body runs out of carbs to burn. “You’ll start using fat and protein for energy, which is called ketosis,” says Cimperman.
While these diets can kick-start your weight loss, they’re hard to maintain over the long run. A 2014 study found that a people on a high-fat, low-carb diet lost more weight at first, but after a year, the difference was less than a pound. Some other downsides: “Because ketogenic diets restrict many foods, there’s also the risk that you may fall short on certain nutrients, such as fiber,” says Cimperman. You may also experience side effects, such as headaches, weakness and bad breath. Q. Give me the bottom line:
How much fat should I eat each day?
A. Aim to get about 30 percent of your total daily calories from fat. Most of it should come from the healthy unsaturated kind—think avocado, nuts, fish and vegetable oils. A small portion—10 percent or less—can come from the saturated fat found in meat, butter and cheese. “If you eat 2,000 calories a day, that breaks down to roughly 65 grams of fat a day,” says Cimperman. “Of that, no more than 20 grams should be saturated.”
Can’t keep up with the math? “Focus on eating mainly whole grains, fruits and vegetables and lean protein,” says Davis. By filling up on the good stuff, you’ll naturally get a moderate amount of fat and limit your saturated fat intake. Consider eating like they do in the Mediterranean: Their diet revolves around olive oil, nuts and fatty fish, along with produce and whole grains. Studies revealed that people who eat in this way shed more weight and had a lower risk of heart disease than those who cut back on fat.
Not only can adding more healthy fat benefit your health and waistline, it can also improve your Pilates practice. “If you eat a meal with fat, you’ll feel fuller and more energized,” says Nichols. “The last thing you want to be is starving in the middle of a workout.”
Which One’s Healthiest?
Grocery shopping can be tricky. When should you opt for the low-fat version, and when should you go for full fat? Use this guide to make the best choices for your health.
NO NFAT, LOW-FAT O R WHOLE-MILK DA ARY ?
Pick between the low-fat and whole-milk options. “Research shows that the fats in dairy don’t raise cholesterol,” says Lisa Cimperman. “It’s mainly about your taste preference.” Although the full-fat products contain more calories, they’re also more filling. According to a 2016 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, women who ate the most high-fat dairy products were 8 percent less likely to become overweight and obese.
LOW-FAT OR REGULAR PACK AGED FOODS , SUCH AS COOKIES AND CRACKERS?
Check out the nutrition facts panel on the package, and compare the calorie, fat, sodium and sugar content. “When manufacturers remove fat from a product, it affects the taste,” says Cimperman. “To compensate, they usually add extra sugar or sodium.” Low-fat sweets, such as cookies and ice cream, often pack in more sugar and less flavor, so she recommends going with a small portion of the regular version and skipping the low-fat one. “It’s much more satisfying.” For savory stuff, she says to check the nutrition panel to ensure you’re not getting tons more sugar for a modest savings of fat and calories. LEAN OR FULL-FAT BEEF? Go lean. Meat contains cholesterol-raising saturated fat. What’s more, the fatty cuts and mixes are higher in calories. A three-ounce serving of 70 percent lean hamburger serves up 281 calories and 26 grams of fat. Compare that to 116 calories and 5 grams of fat in the same amount of a 95 percent lean blend. “No matter what cut you choose, make sure to keep tabs on portion size,” says Mascha Davis. “One three-ounce serving of cooked meat is about the size of a deck of cards.”
REDUCED-FAT OR REGULAR PEANUT BUTTER?
Both varieties have about the same number of calories, but the reduced-fat kind has extra sugar, so spread on the full-fat version. “The fat in peanut butter is the good-for-you monounsaturated kind,” says Cimperman. “Peanut butter is the perfect example of a lower-fat food that’s not as healthy.” WHITE OR DARK MEAT? Whether you prefer breasts or thighs, opt for your favorite. A threeounce serving of a skinless chicken breast contains 102 calories and 2 grams of fat, versus a thigh’s 103 calories and 3.5 grams of fat. Although dark meat has a little more saturated fat, it also delivers more nutrients. Compared to white meat, it contains more PHOTOS BY BIGSTOCK iron, zinc, and vitamins B6 and B12.