Avoiding fat for fear it will make you fat? If so, I don’t blame you. It doesn’t cross your mind that there could possibly be healthy fat. For decades medical professionals, health advocates and government officials recommended we limit our total fat intake to lose weight and reduce our risk of heart disease. We “ate up” this advice and spent much of our adult lives shunning peanuts for pretzels, eggs yolks for fat-free, sweetened yogurts and fish for pasta. Eating fat to lose fat was NOT an idea we would have embraced.
Fast forward 30+ years, and we now know this advice was a BIG FAT mistake. It turns out that whole foods, rich in healthy fat, helps us burn fat while refined, no-fat and reduced fat products, many of which contain added sugar, encourage us to store it. What was the result of this gaffe? A national health crisis! Today, heart disease remains the #1 killer of adults worldwide. Eat these foods to reduce your risk of heart disease. Roughly 45% of Americans are pre-diabetic or diabetic, and 75% of us are overweight or obese. Obesity is one of the greatest risk factors for chronic disease of all kinds, cancer included.
How is it possible that eschewing fats could be so disastrous to our health and waistline?
The unintended consequence of reducing all types of fat led us to consume more carbohydrates. Unfortunately, we didn’t indulge in carbs like fruits, veggies, beans, lentils and whole intact grains, all of which have tremendous health benefits. Instead, we filled up on processed carbs made from refined grains, starches and sugar, which contribute to obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and elevated glucose levels. Low-fat foods like pasta, bread, rice, potatoes, crackers, pretzels, cereals, low-fat frozen desserts, cookies, muffins, breakfast and energy bars, candy, flavored yogurts, granola, sweetened coffees, teas and other beverages became dietary staples causing our girths to explode and our health to decline.
Why are refined carbs (whether in the form of added sugar, potato products or refined flour – gluten free varieties included) so unhealthy? In a “nutshell”, they spike our blood sugar and elicit a surge in insulin. Insulin is a hormone that shuffles the sugar/glucose from our blood into our cells to be used as energy by our body and brain.
However, excess insulin:
- Prohibits the body from burning fat
- Encourages the body to store fat and
- Stimulates our appetite.
This trifecta = weight gain and is especially disastrous for aging women. Post menopause, our bodies tend to compensate for the loss of estrogen by accumulating more estrogen-producing fat cells. Fat cells are insulin resistant or as I like to describe them, insulin intolerant. In other words, they don’t respond efficiently to the hormone insulin causing excess insulin to remain in our bloodstream, resulting in even more fat accumulation. If you’re lactose intolerant, you need to mind your lactose intake, right? Well, if you’re insulin intolerant, you need to limit the foods that spike your insulin, namely refined and fast-digesting carbohydrates.
Unlike refined carbs, fat has a minimal effect on insulin production. And, low levels of insulin are associated with weight loss.
Eating Fat to Lose Fat:
This is not a call to shun all carbs. In fact I firmly believe nutrient dense, slow digesting carbs (non-starchy veggies, beans/legumes and fresh fruit) are the cornerstone of any healthy diet. Click here to see which carbs to include in your diet. I do, however, recommend swapping refined carbs for healthy fat in order to:
- Reduce insulin secretion
- Shed pounds
- Lower your risk for heart disease
- Keep you satisfied longer so you eat less
- Rev up your metabolism
- Allow your body to absorb fat soluble vitamins
Here’s the but ….
Before you load up your plate with butter, Brie and beef, do understand that, like carbs and protein…
Some fats fight disease and others fuel it.
Listen to the sensational headlines or the latest fad diets, and you’ll be shunning all carbs and gorging yourself on high amounts of fat regardless of the type. Be wary. Different fats have different effects on our health. Eating fat to lose fat does take some knowledge.
What you need to know:
- Trans-fat: These heart damaging “partially-hydrogenated” oils found in some fried foods, baked goods, coffee creamers, stick margarines and highly processed snack foods were recently banned by the FDA and thankfully will be out of the food supply by 2018. Avoid until then.
- Unsaturated fats: Volumes of research continue to suggest that foods rich in mono- and polyunsaturated fats like nuts, seeds, olives, olive oil, avocados, fish, unrefined vegetable oils and minimally processed soybeans are heart protective and reduce our risk of heart disease and insulin resistance. They should be the predominate source of fat in your diet.
- Saturated fats: While not as dangerous as once thought, foods high in saturated fat like butter, cream, cheese, full fat milk and yogurt, red meat, coconut, palm oil and cocoa will not lower your risk for heart disease. Much research suggests they’ll increase it. They raise your bad cholesterol, increase inflammation in your body and quite possibly increase insulin resistance. However, they also raise good cholesterol, causing experts to disagree on how unhealthful they are.
- To confuse the issue, different types of saturated fats seemingly have different effects on our health. Full fat dairy is less concerning than red meat. According to Harvard endocrinologist, Dr. David Ludwig, “shorter chain saturated fatty acids found in coconut are metabolized quickly and don’t stick around long enough to cause much trouble.” However, Dr. Tom Brenna, a professor of human nutrition at Cornell University warns us in a recent NY Times article that refined, bleached and deodorized coconut oil predictably raises bad cholesterol that it is used as a control in studies comparing various fats. He suggests that if we want to enjoy this fat, use unrefined, virgin varieties only and consume it in moderation.
Given the uncertainty surrounding saturated fat, I encourage you to enjoy it sparingly. If you struggle with high cholesterol, elevated blood pressure or insulin resistance, speak to your doctor before adding it to your diet. In the meantime, as researchers continue to assess the effects of saturated fat on our health, get most of your fat from unsaturated sources.
Are you concerned about the added calories fat provides?
If so, stay tuned. In a future column, I’ll discuss how weight loss and improved health is about the quality of the calorie, not the quantity. Until then, replace those fat producing starches and processed carbs with deliciously satisfying and metabolically boosting healthy fat. Here are some tips to get you started:
- For breakfast: Substitute your honey-flavored yogurt, which can contain upwards of 6 tsp. of added sugar with plain, Greek yogurt, a handful of nuts and some berries. Top off a pepper, onion and spinach omelet with 2 TBSP of Parmesan cheese or ¼ of an avocado.
- For lunch: Forget the croutons, dried fruit and fat-free dressing. Instead cover your greens with n0n-starchy veggies, a 3oz packet of tuna or tofu, ¼ of an avocado, 2 tsp. of olive oil and vinegar of your choice.
- Hungry at 4PM? Swap your pretzels or popcorn for an apple and 1 TBSP of unsweetened peanut or almond butter.
- For dinner: Instead of tenderloin and potato, enjoy a piece of wild salmon with broccoli sautéed in olive oil and garlic.
- Save the best for last – In the evening, say good-bye to frozen yogurt, SnackWells and even wine and savor .5oz of dark chocolate dipped in almond butter. Eating fat to lose fat can be a delicious way to eat!
(If you’re looking to lose weight and want to add healthy fat to your diet, consider reading Always Hungry? by Dr. David Ludwig, a renowned endocrinologist from Boston Children’s Hospital and professor at both Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health. His book offers a step-by-step guide including meal plans, recipes and strategies to sustainable weight loss. Great read, great resource.)
This article is for informational purposes only, is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, and is not a substitute for medical advice.