The Great Fat Debate

December 29, 2011

To eat fat? Or not to eat fat? That is the burning question plaguing many Americans these days. But new research is changing the way we view (and eat) fats, and helping consumers to face dietary challenges from a more empowered point of view.

As families across the country gather to celebrate this holiday season and into 2012, they will be treated to a variety of delicious – and likely caloric – foods. These are, of course, the types of celebrations that most people look forward to all year. For many of us, however, holiday time also presents a stressful challenge to keep our waistlines from expanding.

To eat fat? Or not to eat fat? That is the burning question plaguing many Americans these days. But new research is changing the way we view (and eat) fats, and helping consumers to face dietary challenges from a more empowered point of view. 

Remember the 90’s? Back then, the recommendation was to strictly follow a diet low in fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. Eating “low fat” became a mantra to dieters everywhere. Today, though, researchers are telling a very different story. We now understand that “good” fats are not simply good for you, they are actually essential to keeping our bodies healthy and in balance. 

“We still see residual effects from decades past when ‘low-fat’ (regardless of a food’s complete nutritional profile) became synonymous with ‘healthy'. Unfortunately, the low-fat mantra is a tough one for many consumers to let go of, and it continues to obscure the beneficial role of fats in our health. That said, I think it’s critical for nutrition professionals to meet this challenge head-on by engaging consumers and promoting the message that healthful fats should be revered in the diet, not feared,” says Kris Sollid, RD, Manager, Nutrients at the International Food Information Council (IFIC).

Instead of removing fats from your diet completely, health professionals now recommend that consumers strive to replace their saturated and trans-fats (fats that are solid at room temperature, like butter, margarine and fatty cuts of meat) with healthier unsaturated fats (fats that are liquid at room temperature, like olive, soybean and canola oils, and fats in fish, tree nuts, avocado and flax seeds).

Fats are important a variety of reasons. Firstly, fats are satisfying, providing a feeling of fullness and adding a flavor, texture and consistency to foods that we like – and expect. Secondly, fats play a crucial role in human health. Fats are found in the wall of each cell in our bodies, and they are critical components of brain and nervous tissue. Additionally, fats are used to make hormones that affect blood pressure, blood clotting, immune function and smooth muscle contraction. And without fats, we would not be able to properly absorb fat-soluble nutrients like vitamin A, D, E and K, and the range of carotenoids (nutrients in foods like carrots and sweet potatoes).

When consumed regularly, as part of a balanced diet, unsaturated fats may help lower LDL cholesterol (the kind you want less of) and raise HDL cholesterol (the “good” kind). There are two types of unsaturated fat: monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat. While it has long been known that linoleic acid (LA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) are essential fatty acids which must be obtained from the diet, we now also know that very long chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fats, found in fatty fish and certain algae, are the most protective against sudden cardiac death; ALA, found in the oil portion of flaxseed, soybeans, walnuts, and other plants, may be heart-protective; LA, an omega-6 fatty acid found in soybeans, corn and sunflowers, provide cell structural support, have beneficial effects on coronary heart disease, and are important for cell signaling in the brain, eyes and kidneys. 

While some research suggests that there may be an optimal omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, and some believe that omega-6 consumption should be reduced, health professionals are now recommending that omega-3 consumption, especially from fish, simply be increased to the levels set out by dietary guidance. The IFIC Foundation 2011 Food & Health Survey found that while over half of Americans consider fish oils and omega-3 fatty acids to be healthful, only 1 in 10 said the same about monounsaturated (MUFA) and polyunsaturated fats (PUFA), which are the important fats found in fish, nuts, and vegetable oils. The irony here, says Sollid, is that omega-3’s are a type of PUFA; it’s just that most consumers haven’t made that connection yet. 

“The calorie issue is also relevant when we talk about food because a key component to good health is staying within your individual calorie needs. It’s also important for good health to get adequate nutrients from the calories we consume,” says Sollid.  

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) Macronutrients Report estimated the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) for fat to be 20-35% of total energy. This value has since been adopted by both the 2005 and 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 

Ultimately, the good news on “good” fats is not a license to pig out at your New Year’s dinner. Calorie reduction (combined with exercise) is still the best way to improve weight loss efforts. Replacing bad fats with good fats won’t help you out if weight loss is your goal. Replacing bad fats with good fats, however, can lead to better health. Now that is something worth celebrating.

“The truth is that we need fat in our diet, but we need to focus on consuming the right types of fat. It’s imperative that we not only provide credible information to consumers, but that we also provide positive, actionable ways to include more of these healthful fats in the diet,” says Sollid.