FAT FREE Doesn't Mean It's Better for You!
Maybe you've fallen victim to this belief before - that a fat free food is somehow automatically "better" or "healthier" for you. Unfortunately, this isn't always the case, and this article will help explain why you need to be incorporating fats into your regular diet, and how not doing so could be not only slowing progress towards a health/weight loss goal but could be harming you.
First, let's do a quick little breakdown on fats in general - what they are, what functions they perform in your body, and where the low-fat/fat free craze from a few years back came from.
Fats are one of the 3 macronutrients (macros) providing energy for your body to function. The other 2 macros are carbohydrates and protein. Often, fats will automatically get a bad rap because they are the most calorically dense (aka energy dense) of the 3 macros. Proteins and carbs provide roughly 4 calories of energy per gram, while fats over double that with 9 calories per gram. Because of this, it is tempting to blame fats for weight gain or lack of weight loss progress when in fact no single macronutrient is more to "blame" than others. Weight gain or weight loss simply comes down to overall energy balance which involves all 3 of the macronutrients.
WHAT FATS DO IN YOUR BODY
Fats play a vital role in your body for both optimal function and performance:
- Hormonal health
- Brain function
- Cell membranes - literally every cell in your body is made of fats!
- Energy production
- Digestion and nutrient absorption
- Transport’s fat-soluble vitamins in your body
- Hunger suppression - fats are very satiating!
As with many things when it comes to nutrition and food, not all fats are the same. Fats can be broken down into 2 main categories: saturated and unsaturated fats.
- Sources of Saturated fats - meat, dairy, eggs, butter, coconut oil, palm oil, cheese
- Unsaturated fats are further broken down into (we will skip the science behind what this means!):
- Polyunsaturated - sunflower oil, corn oil, salmon, herring, sardines, pine nuts, walnuts, pumpkin, and sesame seeds. Omega 3's come from polyunsaturated fats and these must come from food as your body cannot produce them endogenously.
There is one last category of fats to be aware of and those are the trans fats. These are artificially created fats made by heating vegetable oils. This process makes them more stable so they can be heated and reheated multiple times. Think fried foods and processed foods here - the chemical process of creating a trans-fat prolongs the life/stability of the fat so it doesn't spoil.
Trans fats have many well-known adverse health effects including raising your LDL (bad
cholesterol) and lowering your HDL (good cholesterol), creating, and promoting inflammation in your body and insulin resistance, and increasing your risk of cardiovascular disease. Be sure to check your nutrition labels to see if what you are consuming has any trans fats as you want to avoid them as much as possible!
A LITTLE HISTORY LESSON
Where and when did the low fat and fat free movement become so mainstream? What was the rationale behind labeling fats the villain when it comes to weight loss?
This movement started back in the 1970's to reverse cardiovascular disease. One of the experts spoke on the harm of over-consuming fats at the first hearing on dietary changes in congress. What came out of the hearing was this message: eat more carbs and do anything you can to rid fat from your diet (Why We Got Fatter During the Fat-Free Food Boom: The Salt: NPR).
People heard this message, fat is bad, and carbs are good, which resulted in a dramatic increase in the amount of refined sugar and processed foods available to Americans. When you take fat out of food, you lose a lot of the nutrients and flavors that fat brings. And what did the food industry do to make things taste better? Fill it with sugar instead!! The food industry went crazy with marketing and advertising on all things “low-fat” and “fat-free”, and it is exactly during this same time when the population saw the rise of obesity. People began eating more and more calorie dense/nutrient deficient foods.
The 1990's are an example of a time where the 'fat makes you fat" belief ran rampant. Kind of interesting when you compare that to the last 5- 10 years where the keto diet is now all the rage. With Keto, carbs are labeled as the reason for people being overweight and fats make up a mainstay of the diet.
Recent studies have shown there is no indication that following a low-fat diet leads to better weight loss results or a reduction in disease!
There is no one food or category of food that is responsible for weight or fat gain.
Weight gain is the result of consuming more calories on a consistent basis than you burn. Yes, there are a lot of factors that play a role in this - hormones, metabolic capacity, quantity of lean muscle, stress, sleep, activity level etc.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR YOU?
The diet and weight loss industry has one primary goal. For some of you this won't be a surprise, but I know a few of you will be shocked. The primary purpose of the diet/weight loss industry is NOT to help you lose weight but is to MAKE MONEY! They are marketing geniuses labeling foods and products in such a way that you find yourself drawn towards them. Often, they are making promises of unrealistic results.
It distracts you from addressing the basics that are in your control.
It isn't sexy to talk about eating a balanced diet built on lean proteins, fruits/veggies, whole grains, and healthy fats that limits processed foods and refined sugars.
It isn't sexy to talk about consistency and eating in moderation where you still incorporate those highly palatable fun foods (donuts, pizza, cookies, cake, candy etc.) 20% of the time instead of 80% of the time.
Curious on how much fat you should be eating each day? It will be different for everyone but the general rule of thumb for women is anywhere between 25%-40% of your daily caloric intake coming from fats. Some individuals feel better on slightly lower fats and higher carbs based on their lifestyle and vice versa. For example, if your maintenance daily calorie intake is 2200, that would mean anywhere from 550-880 calories per day would come from fat sources (618-97g). This is a situation where working with a registered dietitian or nutrition coach is extremely helpful because they can help you determine and adjust your macronutrients to optimize how you feel and function.