If you want to lose fat, you must restrict your fat intake, right? Maybe not – at least to the point that most people tend to restrict fat. Many of the foods that would be considered “bad” foods are high in fat – because, let’s just be honest – fat is flavor!!! With these foods, we enjoy the mouthfeel – the way the fatty texture feels in our mouths: fried foods, ice cream, full-fat dairy products. However, not all fats are created equal! The key here is “created” – which will make sense in a bit.
Importantly, fat is not your foe! For instance, in your body, every single cell has some content of fat. Fats are required for energy production at rest, in particular for women, and they help regulate hormone production. For example – cholesterol is the precursor for sex hormone production – what you would know as estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. We need fat! However, we likely do not need fat in the amount or content that typical Americans consume.
In terms of Caloric content, fat has the highest Caloric density per gram compared to protein and carbohydrates. Per gram, both protein and carbohydrate contain 4 Calories and fat contains 9 Calories. Therefore, let’s say you have 1 cup of protein, 1 cup of carbohydrate, and 1 cup of fat in front of you – the fat would contain significantly more Calories than both the carbohydrate and protein – even though they all are in similar amounts. For this reason, many people decide to eat low fat diets in an attempt to lose weight. But how are these fat-manipulated options actually defined?
Fat-free: less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving
Low-fat: less than or equal to 3 grams of fat or less per serving
Reduced-fat: at least 25% less fat compared to regular versions
Light: either 1/3 fewer calories or 50% less fat compared to regular versions
Before we even get into these low fat options, we must consider that there are a few types of fats – unsaturated and saturated fat. All foods that contain fat have some proportion of both unsaturated and saturated fats. Unsaturated fats are considered the “good” fats, and are found in high concentrations in foods like avocados, walnuts, olive oil. Saturated fats are found in animal products such as meats and dairy, but also some oils such as coconut oil. Saturated fats are considered the “bad” fats; however, current research is showing that the association of saturated fat consumption and things like cardiovascular disease is inconclusive. So essentially, saturated fats aren’t as bad as they were once previously thought – you may not need to completely avoid red meat! And that’s because we aren’t tending to lump together all saturated fats anymore. Rather, what really matters is the concentrations of different fats within the fat. There are many saturated fats – such as coconut oil – which is about 91% saturated fat! The good news is, though, that about 2/3 of this fat content is medium chain triacylglycerols (fats) – otherwise known as MCTs. Compared to long chain fats, MCTs are digested quickly, are sent directly to the liver for energy production and can stimulate metabolism!
In addition to unsaturated and saturated fats, the dreaded trans fats are those fats that are manipulated to extend the shelf life of several products, and includes hydrogenated oils - in items such as packaged donuts and cookies. It is clearly evident that these trans fats are bad for your health – it’s all over in the media! And I’m not sure that will be changing any time soon. Therefore, it is clear that we not only need to take a look at the total fat content, but also the type of fat and how that fat is processed.
If you are, in fact considering low fat options, there are a few things to understand first. Because a lot of low fat foods can be rather thin and…tasteless, manufacturers strategically add in a bunch of stuff to help enhance the texture, consistency and taste so that these products may be made identical to full-fat choices. For instance, carbohydrates like sugars and starches, salts and artificial sweeteners are added. Try this the next time you go to the grocery store: pick up your favorite non-fat Greek yogurt option and its full-fat counterpart. Compare and contrast the total Calorie content and the carbohydrate content. You’ll find that in some cases, the lower fat options in fact have more Calories and significantly more sugar. In addition, not only are the main ingredients altered, but there are also many more additives. For instance, some manufacturers will add tiny particles of metals (for instance, titanium) in order to amplify the white color of the low fat options. From the previous comparison, you can also compare the additional ingredients that are listed below the nutrition label. You will find that in low-fat options that are significantly more added ingredients compared to full-fat options.
Now, none of this is to say that low fat options are bad! Many health organizations still recommend that you consume low-fat dairy and only lean-cut meats, and that’s ok! However, if you are looking to eat more “naturally”, or you really like red meat or pork, you may not be as boxed-in as you think. Full fat options are okay, and in most cases, less processed and with less additives. Likewise, red meat and pork options may not be as bad as traditionally thought.
However, it is important to mention that if you are deciding to restrict fat, replace some of those bad fats (fried and packaged foods) with good fats (nuts, seeds, avocado), rather than carbohydrates – which seems to be a big problem with low fat diets, potentiating even bigger issues such as diabetes and overweight and obesity.
Also, be mindful of the amount of the low fat option that you are eating. For instance, if you are eating 3 servings of low fat cheese equivalent to 150 Calories, you would actually be eating more Calories than 1 serving of the full-fat version which may be 100 Calories. Compensation is a BIG issue when you are eating “healthier”. Be wary that portion size matters for ALL foods, whether they are “healthy” or “unhealthy”
Take-home message: Don’t fear the fat! Fat won’t make you fat…in most cases. Although fat has a high Caloric content, you must be able to differentiate between the concentrations of fats within the fat. Be mindful of low-fat options, and eat in moderation! If you are on a low fat diet, make sure you are not replacing fat with carbohydrate – eat some good fat!