Many of us grew up with the idea that fat is the enemy. And, after decades of directives to minimize our fat intake, it can be difficult to change our attitudes and our behaviors. But experts now agree: Healthy fats are an essential part of your diet. So, if you’re still ordering skinny lattes and egg-white omelets, it’s time to reset your thinking.
We spoke with experts to get some solid, straightforward advice about how to think about fat. Here’s what to know.
1. Fat is an essential nutrient.
Fat is one of three macronutrients, or macros. The others are protein and carbohydrates. And we need all three in order to function. “Our bodies absolutely can’t operate without dietary fat,” says Aynsley Kirshenbaum, a Brooklyn-based nutrition counselor. “It’s essential for our bodies.”
So, what exactly, does fat do for you? Here are a few key things:
- Fat improves brain health. Your brain is about 60 percent fat (by weight), and it requires dietary fats to stay healthy. Omega-3 fats, in particular, are very protective for the brain, according to psychiatrist and nutrition expert Dr. Drew Ramsey.
- Fat helps your body absorb certain nutrients. Vitamins A, E, D and K are fat soluble, which means you need dietary fat in order to reap their benefits. These vitamins are essential for many functions, including immunity, bone and cell growth, and heart health.
- Fat fuels cell growth. “The body requires ample amounts of healthful dietary fat to construct healthy cells,” says Dr. David Perlmutter, author of Grain Brain.. “The membrane of the cell is, in fact, almost entirely composed of fat.”
- Fat helps with appetite management. “Higher levels of dietary fat help curb the appetite and are actually associated with reduced weight and better blood sugar control,” Dr. Perlmutter says. “Also fat is delicious,” adds Kirshenbaum. “You won’t really feel satisfied without fat.”
- Fat helps curb sugar consumption. “As people have restricted dietary fat, they have made up the calories by eating more and more sugar and carbohydrates,” says Dr. Perlmutter. “It has become quite clear that this dramatic shift has been responsible for the virtual explosion of chronic degenerative conditions including diabetes, coronary artery disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and even cancer.”
2. Not all fats are created equal.
There are three main types of fat: Unsaturated, saturated, and trans fats.
Unsaturated fats are considered the healthiest fats. These include monounsaturated fats, which are found in olive oil, avocados, and some nuts and seeds, and polyunsaturated fats, which are found in walnuts, flax seeds, and fish.
“We now also recognize the importance of saturated fats in the human diet,” says Dr. Perlmutter. “It turns out that saturated fat is fundamental to building and maintaining a healthy brain.” It’s also worth mentioning that peer-reviewed research demonstrates that dietary saturated fat, even in ample amounts, does not increase the risk of coronary artery disease.
Trans fat deserves its bad reputation. It raises bad cholesterol and lowers good cholesterol. In other words, it’s bad news for your heart. Although some meat and dairy products have natural trans fats, the most common source of trans fats is artificial, i.e. partially hydrogenated oil,
Fat Fact: 50% of the fat in human breast milk is saturated fat.
3. Quality matters.
When choosing which fats to eat, it’s not just about unsaturated vs. saturated. As with all foods, quality matters. “It’s like changing the oil in your car,” Ramsey says. “Just like you need high-quality oil in your car, your brain needs high-quality fats.”
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Avocado oil
- Unrefined coconut oil
- Grass-fed butter and ghee
- Nuts and seeds
- Wild-caught fatty fish, like salmon, Arctic char, mackerel, and sardines
- Pastured, organic and/or Certified Humane eggs
- Grass-fed beef
Notably missing from the list? Vegetable oils. The American Heart Association and others sill recommend vegetable oils. But they carry a high percentage of omega-6 linoleic acid, which is linked to heart disease, cancer, and obesity. Balancing our omega-3 to omega-6 ratio is crucial for good health, and avoiding vegetable oils is a good step toward getting there.