It’s an age-old myth: “Fat makes you fat.” This is just one of the beliefs that historically led to the popularity of low-fat diets and many people fearing foods high in fat.
In honour of one the themes for Nutrition Month, “Potential to Prevent”, I want to share with you why we need fat to protect our health, why foods high in fat content shouldn’t be feared, and how to incorporate these healthy fat foods into your meals!
The Low-Fat Fad
In the 1960’s, the sugar industry paid Harvard researchers to publish a review that downplayed the link between sugar and heart disease, and shifted the blame to saturated fat. By shaping the scientific research about nutrition at the time, health officials began advocating for reducing your fat intake, leading to a surge of people consuming low-fat, high-sugar foods for decades, which many experts now believe to have played an instrumental role in the rising rates of obesity. Low-fat products often contain a lot of sugar and other additives to make up for the loss of taste and other functional properties, such as textural components, that fat contributes to food.
For example, think about how can you make peanut butter reduced fat? Well, first of all, peanut butter is supposed to be made from peanuts that have been creamed in a food processor long enough to get the spreadable nut butter. To make it lower fat, you’d either have to manipulate the actual peanut, or you have to add something to the mix. In the varieties you purchase, reduced fat peanut butter has less peanuts and more sugar in order to lower the amount of calories coming from fat.
The diet industry piggy-backed this trend, promoting low-fat diets, and perpetuating the fear of eating fatty foods and gaining weight in the public consciousness, which unfortunately still exists today. (For more on this topic, read my recent blog post about Fighting Fatfobia!)
Current nutrition research disproves dietary fat, with the exception of trans fats, as a main culprit in poor health outcomes, and national nutrition guidelines recommend the intake of fat for a balanced diet.
Certain types of fat help lower the risk for chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease! Is this the opposite of what you would expect?
Research has shown that eating monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats more often than saturated and trans fats improves blood glucose control, reducing your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Lowering your ratio of LDL (bad) cholesterol to HDL (good) cholesterol by consuming unsaturated fats also reduces the development of cardiovascular disease. Replacing saturated fats with monounsaturated fats lowers LDL cholesterol and maintains HDL cholesterol levels, while polyunsaturated fats lower LDL’s and increase HDL’s.
Omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat, are also essential for heart health. Omega-3’s can lower blood pressure levels, raise HDL cholesterol, and reduce chronic inflammation. Other benefits include improved eye health and even alleviation from menstrual pain! Omega-3s can also help fight anxiety and depression, although most clinical studies tested these effects looking at omega-3 supplements.
Foods high in monounsaturated & polyunsaturated fats:
- avocados: perfect addition on top of your morning toast? I think YES.
- nuts and seeds: try tossing some sunflower seeds into a rice dish, or sprinkling hemp seeds into your favourite smoothie!
- fatty fish: salmon, mackerel, herring
- vegetable oils: olive, canola, soybean, flaxseed, peanut, sesame, sunflower. Use these as a base to make your own dressings! If you get confused about which oil to use, check out these tips on how to choose a good quality cooking oil!
Foods high in omega-3s:
- fatty fish: salmon, herring, anchovies, sardines. Anchovy pizza anyone?
- flaxseeds & flaxseed oil: whole flaxseeds aren’t easily digested by the body, so try ground flaxseed to increase the absorption of omega-3!
- chia seeds
- walnuts: blend into a pesto sauce or use as a topping for salads or pastas!
- omega-3 fortified eggs
Stay tuned ‘til the end of the blog for some omega-3 packed plant-based recipes if you don’t eat fish!
Saturated fats are found in:
- whole milk
- beef, chicken, lamb, pork
- palm oil, coconut oil
You don’t need to entirely avoid saturated fats to be heart healthy! One of the main purposes of dietary fat is to add great flavour to our food, and you can certainly enjoy the flavour of saturated fats as part of your diet. If you do have heart disease or high blood pressure, a dietitian can help you find that happy balance where your enjoyment of food is not compromised!
Thankfully, Canada has banned the addition of partially hydrogenated oils, which was the main source of industrially produced and added trans fats in processed foods. Small amounts of trans fats are naturally found in beef, lamb, and dairy products.
There’s no need to completely eliminate less healthy fats from your diet, because let’s face it; warm, flaky, BUTTERY croissants are deliciously luscious! By focusing on what to eat more of, like omega 3’s, over what to eat less of (the story of every diet-culture nutrition claim) you’ll continue to be caring for your overall health without compromising your food flavour and enjoyment.
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This blog was written with the help of nutrition and dietetic students, Miguelle and Celine.
17 Science-Based Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids [Retrieved: February 19, 2019] https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/17-health-benefits-of-omega-3
Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association [Retrieved: February 19, 2019] https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/CIR.0000000000000510
Dietary fats and prevention of type 2 diabetes [Retrieved: February 19, 2019] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19032965
Effects of Saturated Fat, Polyunsaturated Fat, Monounsaturated Fat, and Carbohydrate on Glucose-Insulin Homeostasis: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Randomised Controlled Feeding Trials [Retrieved: February 19, 2019] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27434027
Fats [Retrieved: February 19, 2019] https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/nutrients/fats.html
Food Sources of Omega-3 Fats [Retrieved: February 19, 2019] https://www.dietitians.ca/getattachment/de95e92c-3fb3-40db-b457-173de89bdc3a/FACTSHEET-Food-Sources-of-Omega-3-Fats.pdf.aspx
Sugar Industry and Coronary Heart Disease Research: A Historical Analysis of Internal Industry Documents [Retrieved: February 19, 2019] https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/article-abstract/2548255