Fatty Foods: 4 Things You Need to Know

There are plenty of healthy foods that are high in fat. | iStock.com

The word “fat” doesn’t exactly have great connotations. The first thing that comes to mind may be that stubborn roll around your waist, an overweight family member, or the closely associated words “plump” or “obese.” These aren’t exactly great associations, which is why it’s no surprise fatty foods have been regarded as something to avoid. Why pick up the full-fat yogurt when there’s a carton of fat-free yogurt sitting right next to it? Why buy whole milk when skim will do the trick?

In the late 1980s, two major reports came out identifying dietary fat as the single biggest cause of poor diet and health. The fact that fat has nine calories per gram while protein and carbohydrates boast just four calories per gram was all it took for the low-fat diet craze to take over. To feed this change, the food industry substituted sugars for fats to drop the calorie content, and people replaced milk, animal protein, and cheese with pasta, potatoes, and rice. With this shift, Americans started getting fatter and fatter.

Today, the idea of fatty foods as the nemesis is slowly losing footing as new research and studies show that healthy fats are essential to the body in moderate doses. Here are some of the latest facts on fat.

1. You need fat

A diagram of a brain

Your brain needs fat to function properly. | iStock.com

Contrary to what the fat-evading dieters of the 1980s and 1990s thought, your body needs fat. Dietary fats cannot be made by your body but are needed for growth development and cell function. In addition, your brain contains large amounts of essential fats, and in order for your nerves and brain to function properly, fat is needed to wrap around nerve cells so that they can send electrical messages. While the role of fat in relation to your brain and nervous system may be confusing, there is nothing complicated about the need for fats in maintaining healthy skin, storing energy, and regulating the body’s natural processes.

2. Not all fats are equal

healthy fats

Healthy fats like avocado and salmon are among your best options. | iStock.com

Just because fats are no longer solely to blame for weight gain and obesity doesn’t mean that you should smear a thick layer of butter on everything you eat. Some fats are better for you than others. Two fats in particular should be the mainstay of your fat consumption: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These two fats have the power to reduce bad cholesterol and inject your diet with vitamin E.

Polyunsaturated fats also include essential fatty acids such as omega-3 and omega-6, which the body can’t produce on its own. Monounsaturated fats can be found in plant-based oils like sesame oil, olive oil, peanut oil, and canola oil. Polyunsaturated fats are found in fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and trout in addition to corn and sunflower oil.

3. Limit some fats

steak cooked medium-rare

Limit some fats, like red meat. | iStock.com

The big question on your mind may be where some of your favorite foods stand in light of this new perception of fat’s role in the diet. Animal products like red meat, chicken skin, butter, cheeses, and whole milk naturally contain saturated fats. Saturated fats raise the level of cholesterol in your blood and, when eaten excessively, can increase your risk of heart disease. However, if there is one thing we learned from the anti-fat era, it’s that completely cutting out certain foods and replacing them with others isn’t beneficial to our overall health levels.

Saturated fats should be eaten, but only in moderation. The American Heart Association recommends consuming around 13 grams of saturated fats a day. The key is to replace some saturated fats with monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats. This may mean smearing your turkey wrap with avocado rather than mayo or topping your salad with pumpkin seeds instead of cheese.

4. Ban bad fats

peanut butter

Trans fats may be the worst of the worst.| Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Fat may be shedding its negative stigma, but trans fats should still be avoided. Trans fats are also known as partially hydrogenated oils and can be found in some margarines, crackers, cookies, cakes, pies, and frozen foods. In a 2015 study, people who ate higher amounts of trans fats were 34% more likely to die from any cause and 28% more likely to die from heart disease. Other studies have linked the excess consumption of trans fats to stroke, diabetes, and cancer. The research behind this killer fat is so impressive that in 2015 the FDA removed partially hydrogenated oils from its list of “generally recognized as safe” ingredients.