Does fat make you fat? Should you give up on meat if you want to keep heart diseases at bay? Is butter better than margarine? How many times have you tossed these questions into the universe and went bonkers thinking about ways you can cut off oils, butter and fats from your diet?
Interestingly, we do not have a similar attitude towards other macro nutrients. While we may have a friendly approach towards carbs and proteins, when it comes to fats, it is totally different! We dread consuming fat and try to avoid it whenever possible. One of the prominent reasons why this notion is popular is that the word ‘fat’ is also used for the mass that accumulates in our body making us overweight! However, it’s a misconception.
Most of us do not know that the Fat we eat is different from the fat that is accumulated in our body! Fats are a group of natural esters of glycerol and various fatty acids, which are solid at room temperature and are the main constituents of animal and vegetable fat. Whereas, Adipose tissue (body fat) is a normal constituent of the human body that serves the important function of storing energy as fat for metabolic demands. You can gain weight and get fatter even on a zero fat diet if you are consuming only unhealthy carbs like processed grains and sugar.
Everyone has a different opinion about fat, depends on who you strike a conversation with. Paleo enthusiasts say that fat is essential for longevity, dietitians talk about good fat vs. bad fat, vegans cringe and ask you to stay away from dairy and meat at any cost and doctors claim that it is artery clogging. The debate around ‘fat’ is so huge that it can definitely drive you nuts.
Ever wondered how this started?
An epidemiological study called the ‘7 countries study’ by Dr. Ancel Benjamin Keys, a prominent person in the field of nutrition, led us to the conclusion –
Saturated fat leads to high cholesterol that gives you heart attack
Many more scientists joined this chorus and the big saga of “fats are bad for you” thus began. This fueled the food industry leading to “low-fat” revolution. Scientists started preaching vegetable oils, industries started removing fats from foods and replacing it with simple sugars (to restore the taste and stabilize the product) and a cap on the Recommended Daily Allowance on fat was set!
The study has been questioned for decades and some concerns have been expressed from time to time. But, it still managed to convolute the way we look at ‘fats’!
How did it change things for us?
- We eliminated fats from our diets all together
With fats being directly linked to heart diseases, we were left with confusing and conflicting information. We started indulging in low fat and high carbohydrate foods that were packaged and processed, and absolutely cut off whole eggs, meat and dairy. A diet low in fats keeps us hungry resulting in constant snacking as fat is what regulates the brain to not feel hungry and helps in developing a feeling of satiety.
- We indulged in low-fat products that did nothing but made it worse
The low fat industry was sparked by this one study and everyone started speaking about cutting fats from daily food items. Everything we ate on a daily basis had its low fat version. Skimmed milk, low fat butter, low fat yoghurt, low fat crackers and the list goes on. We started buying low fat products under the impression that we would avail health benefits out of them. But, on the contrary, we were being tricked. Because, sucking out fats from a wholesome food item leaves it unstable with an unpalatable flavor. This was then balanced by adding sugars and artificial stabilizers that made the product tastier, but got us addicted and hooked to sugar. Furthermore this caused spike in sugar levels making us Always Hungry
- We started avoiding fats as they are calorie dense
Fat is a concentrated source of energy and provides us with 9 kcals/gm whereas carbs and proteins provide us with 4 kcals/gm each. Though fat is a concentrated source of energy, only a small portion can give you a feeling of fullness. For e.g. You could eat a full pack of biscuits and still crave for more whereas dressing your salads with a tablespoon of olive oil can keep you going for a longer period as your brain is satisfied. Looking at it from a perspective of being calorie dense is totally wrong. Fats are absolutely essential for our body and while saturated fats raise LDL (bad cholesterol), they also raise HDL (good cholesterol). Though we emphasize on the importance of increasing the good cholesterol and minimizing the bad, what is of relevance is the HDL/LDL ratio. Hence, Saturated fats aren’t bad for our body
The takeaway message?
- Cholesterol is not your enemy
High cholesterol has been directly linked to heart diseases with assumptions that eating a diet high in cholesterol increases blood cholesterol. It needs to be understood that cholesterol is vital for various bodily functions and that your liver produces 85% of the cholesterol in the body and is a perfectly natural substance that performs many crucial functions in the body. Cholesterol is a building block of every cell membrane including the brain cells, it helps our body make hormones and is the antioxidant for the brain, therefore, it shouldn’t be avoided! So no more getting rid of the precious egg yolks!
- Forget the low fat and no fat products. You should consider consuming fats as much as 30-35% of your calories. Replace all your refined carbohydrates and simple sugars to fats from whole foods. This will also satiate you better and reduce the monstrous hunger pangs that make you snack like there is no tomorrow. According to Gary Taubes, author of ‘Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It’ – “The simple answer as to why we get fat is that carbohydrates make us so; protein and fat do not”.
- Red meat is not your enemy. I look at it as a decision for you to make – would you eat saturated fats from whole foods like eggs, red meat, dairy and fish rather than eat it out of processed foods that suck out all the nutrition? Look out for grass fed meat and choose from a variety of options for proteins like eggs, chicken, red meats, fish, etc. Remember that while egg yolk has fat and cholesterol (of the good kind), it also has 3 gms of protein per egg yolk. Choose cooking options like roasting and grilling over frying your protein.
- Judiciously choose your saturated fats. It is wise to choose your saturated fats from the healthier available options. Enjoy whole dairy products like milk, yogurt, butter and cheese in moderation rather than opting for their low fat versions that have non-dairy additives and added sugars (or sodium) which are not healthy and don’t satiate you. Avoid saturated fats from processed and packaged foods as they are often accompanied by trans-fat. Choose ghee, butter, sesame seed oil, etc. over vegetable oils.
We now know that fats are not a food group to be avoided because of the caloric density and little relevance. Fats are absolutely essential and should be regarded as an integral part of our daily diet. With the growing importance of consuming the right food and the clarification of so many confusions around lipids, Fats are coming back in style!
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Akansha is the Founder and Consultant at Beyond the Weighing Scale. With a wide range of expertise and skills, she is adept to speak about nutrition, health, lifestyle management and physical activity. She is a popular food columnist, a passionate foodie, a health enthusiast, an avid traveler and a happy yogi.