The Skinny on Dietary Fats: When to Embrace Them, When to Resist

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Eating clean isn’t easy. Because the public is given differing and sometimes contradictory reports, it’s hard to effectively navigate what we should be eating, what we should be avoiding, what diet trends are scams, and what food regimens actually hold weight. Some of the oldest weight-maintenance tricks in the book are now being debunked, and it’s safe to say consumers are confused. And who can blame them?

While low-fat, low-carb diets used to be all the rage, more evidence is cropping up that not all fat is created equal: suddenly, dieters are seeking out the fat rather than hiding from it. What’s more, “healthy fats” are now a staple in healthy eaters’ arsenal of dietary tricks, and things are officially getting twisted. Let’s break down the facts behind the fat — the good, the bad, and the omega-3s. Then, we’ll apply that knowledge to the grocery store and outline where you should be going fat-free and where you should be getting down with the full fat.

To begin, everyone should understand that there are two types of fat: good fats and bad fats. Plain and simple, good fats tend to lower LDL cholesterol levels, subsequently lowering one’s risk of cardiovascular disease, while bad fats raise LDL cholesterol levels and increase that risk of disease. Easy enough to understand, but the hard part is determining which fats fall into which- camp. HelpGuide.org says that the fats consumers are told to stay away from (or at least only consume in moderation) include trans fats and saturated fats, as they raise cholesterol and put you at a higher risk for heart disease. Diets rich in saturated fat and trans fat can contribute to clogged arteries.

Saturated fats have long been recognized as the bad guys in fat world; trans fats recently joined them, and the latter is understood as even worse than the former. According to WebMDlike saturated fats, trans fats raise LDL cholesterol, but they take it a step further and lower HDL, or “good” cholesterol, potentially causing more damage. The American Heart Association advises limiting saturated fat consumption to less than 7 percent of daily calories and trans fat consumption to less than 1 percent. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has even officially declared war on trans fat.

As for identifying those harmful fats, keep in mind that saturated fat is found mostly in foods from animals and some plants — think beef, lamb, pork, lard, poultry fat, butter, cream, milk, cheeses, and other dairy products — while trans fats are in margarine, shortening, cooking oils, and the foods made from them. These fats are often found in packaged foods such as french fries, margarine, cake mixes, and ramen noodles.

Now that we’ve got the bad guys out of the way, we can point a spotlight at the good fats: unsaturated fats like omega-3, omega-6, oleic acid, and linoleic acids. According to the University of New Hampshire’s Healthy UNH website, these fats are not only necessary because they reduce the risk of clogged arteries, but they also are important for the functioning of a healthy body because the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K all require fat to be absorbed into the body. Without the intake of that fat, consumers are unable to absorb any of their essential vitamins. What’s more, foods high in unsaturated fats also help satiation because they take longer to digest and therefore keep eaters satisfied longer, minimizing the need to mindlessly snack.

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And as for identifying healthy fats, WebMD says that monounsaturated fat is the primary fat found in olive oil, avocado, nuts, and nut butters, while polyunsaturated fat is prevalent in corn, cottonseed, and safflower oil; sunflower seeds and sunflower oil; flaxseed and flaxseed oil; soybeans and soybean oil, and seafood. Because the mix of fats you eat, rather than the total amount in your diet, is what matters most when it comes to your cholesterol and health, put a premium on incorporating the aforementioned foods in your diet. Keep in mind that the American Heart Association recommends a total fat intake of between 25 and 35 percent of calories, with most fats coming from sources of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids.

So do you see why “healthy fats” are now all the rage? Healthy eaters celebrate them for helping them lose or maintain their weight (satiation!), improving their mood, and boosting their immune system (absorption of vitamins!). Of course, fat is fat and should always be consumed in moderation, but there’s still a reason why good fats are essential to physical and emotional health.

Now it’s time to coast down the aisles of the grocery store, determining where you should embrace the fat and where you should avoid it. The supermarket is where America’s obsession with low-fat foods is confirmed, but sometimes, low-fat foods don’t deliver on their healthy promises — those are the ones that should be avoided, even if their alternatives require you to welcome the fat and usually the uptick in calories.

Women’s Health reports that sometimes, the full-fat versions of food are better than the low-fat or fat-free varieties — the latter either contains artificial ingredients that wreak even more havoc than fat on the body or they simply don’t satiate consumers. Though there are a number of items that tempt consumers to go fat free but are better full fat, these four foods were highlighted by Dawn Jackson Blatner, author of The Flexitarian Diet, for Women’s Health. Here’s why:

1. Peanut butter

First up is America’s favorite nut butter. The varieties of peanut butter are endless, but the version that consistently catches dieters’ eyes is undoubtedly the low-fat one. It looks like a good idea under the fluorescent lights of grocery stores, but Blatner says to resist the temptation and go for the full-fat PB. She told Women’s Health that manufacturers get their low-fat versions by “[taking] out the fat and [adding] in sugar — and that’s no better for you, especially since you’re usually not even saving that many calories.” The registered dietitian also asserts that in natural peanut butter, most of the fat content is heart-healthy monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat.

2. Salad dressing

Next up on the Women’s Health list is salad dressing, the magical sauce that can make greens more delectable but also wreck a perfectly healthy salad. Because consumers know that many salad dressings are teeming with calories, there is always a temptation to go for the zero-fat variety — however, that’s a bad move, Blatner says. She explained to the publication that “Zero-fat salad dressing is a big no-no because the fat helps us absorb carotenoids — the nutrient-rich compounds found in the vegetables in our salads.”

Case in point, if we’re going to eat the vegetables, we might as well get the benefits from them: salad dressing is when we should splurge (in moderation) on the full-fat sauce. Just make sure you aren’t heavy-handed with the pour.

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3. Eggs

Poor eggs are always getting a bad rap thanks to something called cholesterol. Luckily for egg lovers, recent reports say that eggs are really not as bad as past research suggests, especially since recent studies have shown that regular egg consumption may be associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. Still, that hasn’t kept shoppers from avoiding the egg aisle in the grocery store at all costs.

People go for egg whites, thinking they’re avoiding cholesterol and fat when they eliminate the yellow from their scrambles, but Blatner argues that they’re actually not doing themselves any favors. She said to Women’s Health: “People are throwing away egg yolks right and left — mostly to get rid of cholesterol, but also for fat. But a whole egg is a lot better for you than just eating the white.”

That’s because the yolk contains choline, a healthy-brain compound, along with lots of other good-for-you nutrients. Lesson learned? Don’t let the yolk scare you.

4. Baked goods

Lastly, the good stuff — or the stuff we know that’s bad for us but still can’t resist, so we justify our purchases by buying the reduced-fat kind. This makes sense in our heads, but Blatner once again refutes our logic. “Rather than stocking up on reduced-fat pre-packed baked goods, go with fresh bakery items that are made with canola or full-fat liquid oils,” she told Women’s Health. Or better yet, make your own desserts and bypass the scary artificial ingredients.

So there you have it — (some) fats are friends and should not be avoided.

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