Few topics spark controversy in the world of nutrition like the macronutrient fat does. One of the most widely debated questions being, ‘is fat good for you?’ or more crudely, ‘does fat make you fat?’ It seems the only broadly accepted answer is that there is no answer. Much of the dispute stems from the different types of fat, the good fats versus bad fat debate. Even more complicated, historically saturated fats have a rep as bad fat, but is it a rep they deserve? Maybe not.
History and Politics of Fat
The debate on fat has stood the test of time, dating back to the early 1940s when physicians recommended low-fat diets to treat patients at risk of heart disease. Fast forward to the 1980s, and the low-fat diet is an absolute craze. Want to lose weight? Go low-fat. Want to sell cereal? Market fat-free.
It was hard to dispute; scientific research backed up the craze. A groundbreaking 1960s article cited fat as the obesity pandemic’s culprit, downplaying any other possible causes, like sugar. Who funded the research? The sugar industry.
While this influence was cleverly tactical for the sugar industry, it was dangerously misleading to the average American grocery shopping. Foods labeled ‘low-fat’ quickly because associated with healthy choices despite being loaded with refined sugar. Fortunately, today we know the risks of a diet high in refined sugar.
Fat’s Saving Grace: The War on Carbs
Enter Dr. Robert C. Atkins, fat’s hero, and carb’s biggest enemy. The early 2000s left behind the low-fat craze and replaced it with the low-carb craze. The Atkin’s diet soared with popularity, owning a diet allowing high levels of fat, be it from cheeseburgers, bacon, or a steak. If that sounds problematic, it’s because it is. Not all types of fat are nutritionally equal, which is where many medical professionals have landed today. There are good fats, bad fats, and saturated fats.
Types of Fat
- Unsaturated fats are widely considered ‘good fats.’ They are mostly found in foods from plants and have many health benefits, such as decreased inflammation, improved cholesterol, and increased heart health. Many studies show replacing refined carbohydrates with unsaturated fats improves cholesterol, lowers blood pressure, and reduces the risk of heart disease.
Under the umbrella of unsaturated fats, there are polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats.
Foods high in polyunsaturated fats include:
- Oils (canola, sunflower, corn, soybean, and flaxseed)
Foods high in monosaturated fats include:
- Nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, pecans)
- Seeds (pumpkins and sesame)
- Oils (olive, peanut, canola)
- Trans fats are considered ‘bad fats’ and for good reason. It’s comparatively undisputed that even small amounts of trans fats wreak havoc on your health. A diet high in trans fat can lead to harmful cholesterol levels and increased risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and insulin resistance.
Harvard’s School of Public Health warns, “for each additional 2 percent of calories from trans fat consumed daily, the risk of coronary heart disease increases by 23 percent.”
Small traces of trans fat are found in animal products; however, trans fat is mainly found in:
- Margarine and shortening
- Fried foods
- Fast foods
- Baked goods
- Processed snacks
- Saturated fats are controversial. Whereas unsaturated fats are almost universally regarded as ‘good fats;’ and trans fats are universally regarded as ‘bad fats,’ saturated fats fall somewhere in between.
Foods that are high in saturated fat are:
- Full fat dairy
- Milk and cream
- Cookies and desserts
- Fast food
It’s clear to see how this range of foods can create confusion. Certainly, cookies and pizza are not healthy, but what about full-fat cheese and milk?
Conflicting Research on Saturated Fat
The USDA recommends that no more than ten percent of your daily calories come from saturated fat. They report their research shows an increase in the risk of heart disease and weight gain. Based on a woman’s daily caloric intake of 2,000 calories, that’s about 20 grams of saturated fat per day. For reference, an eight-ounce glass of whole milk has five grams of saturated fat.
The American Heart Association goes even further to recommends only five percent, or roughly ten grams, of calories per day, come from saturated fat.
Why then, do many registered dietitians embrace full-fat dairy, saturated fats, and insist it aids in weight loss?
A 2013 study in the European Journal of Nutrition found no link between obesity and full-fat dairy. In fact, in 11 out of 16 participants, there was an inverse relation. However, it found no relationship between full-fat dairy and heart disease and diabetes.
A 2011 longitudinal study found similar results. Following adolescents from ages 13 to 36, dairy had no effect on weight gain or metabolic syndrome. Again, those with high-fat dairy consumption weighed less and had less body fat.
Good Saturated Fats and Their Benefits
Much of the clashing evidence can be attributed to the source of saturated fats. In the same sense that there is good fat and bad fat, there is also good saturated fat and bad saturated fat. Quality full-fat dairy being the star.
Benefits of full-fat dairy are:
- Weight loss
- Lower risk of type two diabetes
- High HDL cholesterol levels
- Less chance of heart disease
- Less bloat
- Improved digestion
Much of this is credited to full-fat dairy’s hunger-fighting characteristics. Adding full-fat dairy to a meal keeps you full longer, and helps avoid overeating. Eating a garden salad with fat-free dressing seems wholesome until you’re raiding the refrigerator in an hour. In short, fat keeps you full.
Another advantage of full-fat dairy is that it typically has less sugar than low-fat or fat-free dairy—this aids in blood sugar control and increases metabolism. As mentioned above, sugar and refined carbohydrates are the real enemies of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
There you have it, permission granted to add some full-fat cheese to your salad or use whole milk in your smoothie, it could be your best weight-loss tool yet