The low-fat diet craze has been popular since the ‘70s when scientists linked a diet high in saturated fat to raised cholesterol levels, and a low-saturated fat diet was found to be protective against heart disease. Somehow, because of the unhealthy qualities of this one type of fat, the entire fat category got a bad rap. Thus began the low-fat diet craze (which actually became the low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet craze that continues to contribute to the highest rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease we have ever seen).
The truth is we need fat. It’s one of the three main macronutrients—fat, carbohydrates, and protein—that provides fuel for our body and keeps us running. Every cell in the body is enclosed in a membrane made up of fats. Without fat, our cells cannot run efficiently. But certain fats are better than others, as scientists learned in the early studies investigating fat and heart disease.
The one fat you want to completely eliminate from your diet is processed trans-fat. The trans-fat found in hydrogenated oils (common in processed foods) has been linked to a number of health conditions. It’s best to cut this one out completely. The fat you want to greatly reduce is saturated fat. Although a natural fat, its saturated nature means that it is a stiff molecule, and stiff fats make for stiff cell membranes. This reduces the ability of the cell to maintain fluidity—an important characteristic of a healthy cell.
You don’t have to eliminate saturated fats, but be sure to eat them in moderation. Even better, obtain your saturated fats from coconut oil, a medium chain saturated fat considered a healthy saturated fat due to its shorter chain length and rapid metabolism.
The fats you do need to eat—probably more than you already do—are monounsaturated fats (found in olive oil) and the omega-3 fats (found in fish oil, flaxseed, chia seed, and walnuts). These fats are unsaturated, and contribute to the fluidity of cell membranes, as well as to the regulation of inflammatory response—all health-promoting actions.
A recent study published in the journal Molecular Nutrition & Food Research highlighted the importance of eating fats along with vegetables. The researchers found that the carotenoid nutrients (beta carotene is a carotenoid) found in salads were best absorbed when eaten in combination with monounsaturated fats as opposed to saturated or even polyunsaturated fats. If you have been passing on salad dressing because you want to cut down on fat, you’re better off adding fat—use a vinaigrette made with olive oil. This week, add some extra virgin olive oil to your veggies and remember that fat is a nutrient—not the enemy. Just choose the right fats.