When we hear the word "fat," we don't necessarily think of pleasant images or good health. Fats are one of the most misunderstood foods we consume, and the medical field is partly responsible. The public needs to be reeducated on which fats to avoid and why certain fats are so important.
On the following pages, learn the the truth behind seven common myths about fat.
1: The body doesn't need fat.
The body absolutely requires fat. We could not live without it. The materials that make up fat are also used around our nerves, in the brain and to make hormones. Without healthy fats, we would have no energy, we wouldn’t be able to think and we would have no coordination. We have to have some form of healthy fat every day.
2: There is no such thing as a healthy fat.
Again, the body cannot live without fat. But the body has to get fat from healthy sources. In particular, the body needs omega-3 fatty acids from sources like fish, flax and chia seeds. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to benefit the brain, help with blood lipids and help decrease stroke and heart disease risk. Unhealthy sources of fat include anything fried in vegetable oil and margarine. Other unhealthy fats are discussed under the following myths.
3: Eating fat makes you fat.
Eating healthy fats does not make you fat, and in fact, it can help with weight loss. Many experts believe that healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids from fish are essential for weight loss. Weight gain in developed nations occurs predominately because of increased sugar intake in the form of sweets, soft drinks and extra pastas and breads. If the extra sugars (carbohydrates) are not completely burned off through exercise, they get stored in the body as fat. Be suspicious of cookies, crackers, or other refined foods that say "low fat," as many have extra sugars to make up for the taste.
4: Eating saturated fat from dairy and red meat is bad for your heart.
This myth is tricky because in some respects it is true. It depends significantly on the health of the animal. Cows that are allowed to eat only grass will be much healthier, and much leaner than cattle fed grains and corn. In fact, grain is given to cattle to fatten them up before they go to the market. Grass-fed beef is leaner and of higher nutritional value. Grass-fed beef is higher in a fat called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), thought to be valuable for weight loss and cancer protection. If you can't find it, grass-fed beef can be purchased online and shipped frozen. Another great resource is a local farmer who raises beef only on grass and without hormones.
5: Margarine is better for you than butter.
This myth has unfortunately been perpetuated by the medical community and the food industry. In fact, many nutritionists and doctors still don't understand the difference. Margarine contains fats called “trans fats". The word “trans” refers to part of their chemical structure. These fats do not do well in the body and are very hard on the blood vessels. They should be avoided, thus margarine should not be used. Butter does not contain trans fats. Trans fats contain partially hydrogenated oils, are linked with higher rates of coronary artery disease, and lower good cholesterol (HDL) and raise bad cholesterol (LDL) [Source: Oomen, Murray].
6: Low-fat products are better for you.
The 1990s brought a rush of low-fat products that promised healthier options. What was not typically remarked on was that these foods were replacing the fat taste with sugar. Sugar is now rampant in the Standard American Diet and wreaks havoc on the body. Refined sugars in soft drinks and sweets play a huge role in weight gain and the skyrocketing rates of diabetes. Eating cookies or desserts that say "low fat" on the package only means you're getting more sugar, meaning a worse impact on your health. A common food where fat makes a difference is dairy. Children ages 1-2 are typically started on whole milk, then switched to 2 percent. Dairy has its own considerations as it may benefit some and not others.
7: Eating fat will raise my cholesterol.
Cholesterol is such a hot topic in medicine. Most patients are led to believe they have very little power over their cholesterol, and few know that they would not be alive if they didn’t have at least some cholesterol in their bodies. Eating the wrong foods will have a dramatically negative effect on your health. Conversely, eating at least three servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables a day protects the heart and can help with cholesterol. Healthy fats, like those in fish, can help with both the good and bad types of cholesterol. Avoiding fried foods and partially hydrogenated oils can help inflammation, a major contributor to chronic diseases. Many patients are surprised to see that by eating a balance of healthy proteins, healthy fats, and fruits and veggies while cutting back on sugar drops their cholesterol dramatically.
Healthy fats are provided by fish such as salmon, sardines, anchovies and tuna. They are the best source of omega-3 fatty acids. Pollution has now limited much of the consumable fish population. Alaskan salmon remains one of the safest choices of fish available. Fish oil supplements that have been tested for heavy metals are also an option. Flax is another source of omega-3 fatty acids, though it is not quite as effective as fish oil. Other sources include walnuts, olive oil and avocados. For cooking, coconut oil is best because it is resistant to high heat and undergoes less damage during the cooking process.
Unhealthy fats include fried foods and anything cooked or made with vegetable oil. High heat applied to vegetable oil damages the oil and is very hard on the body. Any food containing any type of hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils should be avoided as well.
Lots More Information
- Oomen, CM., et al. (2001). Association between trans fatty acid intake and 10-year risk of coronary heart disease in the Zutphen Elderly Study: a prospective population-based study. Lancet, 357(9258):746-51.
- Murray, S. (2005). Chewing the fat on trans fats. CMAJ, 173(10):1158-9.