The Great Fat Debate

Balancing Fat Intake for Optimal Health

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Let’s face it- dietary fat has gotten a bad rap. Maybe it’s a holdover from the popular diets of the 90’s where low- or no-fat diets were touted as the way to prevent heart disease and lose weight. Nutrition experts agree that this was likely worse for our health in the long run. Reason being? Low-fat diets simply don’t work. They’re not palatable or satisfying and may have lead to eating more simple sugars to replace the fat in our diet. Research now suggests that fats can support health- it’s all about the balance. Let’s review fat facts to demystify this cloudy topic. 

  • Dietary fat is essential. We need it for brain health, to keep our skin soft, to carry fat-soluble vitamins, and to feel satisfied with our meals. However, too much saturated fat from animal sources (such as butter, cheese and red meat) and trans fat (the man-made fat found in shelf stable snack foods, fried foods and margarine) is undeniably bad for your health. High saturated and trans fat intake is associated with heart disease, diabetes and an increased risk of certain types of cancer. Sources of more healthful unsaturated fats include fish and plant sources such as avocado, vegetable oils, nuts, and flax seeds.
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  • Eating fat doesn’t lead to unhealthful weight gain. While fat does have a higher amount of calories, gram for gram, than protein or carbohydrate, it also has a higher level of satisfaction. Research does not support that people who eat low-fat diets have less body fat. In fact, the opposite may be true due to the swapping of nutrients that happens when you cut the fat. Traditionally carbohydrates are replaced for fats in low-fat diets or reduced fat processed foods, which are easier to overeat and are digested quickly. This can actually lead to weight gain and over time increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
  • The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and American Heart Association suggest that adults get no more than 35 % of total calories from fat per day, and 7-10% of those calories from saturated fats. So what does that come down to? For the average adult consuming roughly 2000 calories per day, that’s about 75-80 grams of total fat and 16-22 grams of saturated fat daily. To learn about the fat content of your favorite foods, check the nutrition facts label.
  • Kids need fat and low-fat diets are inappropriate for growing bodies. Fats are important for brain development and help kids get the fuel they need to grow. Include sources of fats in kid’s meals and snacks to keep them fueled throughout the day and contribute to healthy growth- both brain and body.

The important takeaway here is to be mindful to choose sources of unsaturated fat that can support our health. And remember- it’s your overall diet quality that counts- so include plenty of fruits, vegetables, lean meats and whole grains with those healthy fats. 

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Kat Brown MS RD RYT is a San Francisco Bay Area based Registered Dietitian and Yoga Teacher. As a nutrition counselor, writer, cook, and yogini she seeks to inspire others to nourish themselves and live balanced, fulfilled lives.