Healthy fats or fat free?
The traditional diet and weight loss advice has been based on low fat and calorie counting advice for years. Fat-free products dominated the market after this advice. It was thought that these products were a healthier choice especially for weight loss and heart disease.
Despite following this advice many people have continued to struggle with weight gain and weight related health problems such as diabetes.
Calories in, calories out is outdated
Many people are confused about fat. It is now argued that the advice to follow a low fat diet, for health and weight loss, may have been incorrect or misleading all along.
Calories do matter. We can gain weight when we take in more calories than we need, but they are not the only thing that matters. Calories from broccoli for example are not the the same as calories from a mars bar!
Low fat foods can be high in sugar
Food manufacturers had to make up for the loss of flavour when removing the fat from foods. They did this by adding sugars, salt and flavourings.
Diet foods labelled low fat have been a big business for a long time but many people have not found these products helpful for weight loss in the long term.
As awareness about the impact of sugar on our health has grown there has been questions about whether the advice surrounding fat was correct after all.
This is still a difficult question for science to answer fully due to the complexities of reliably testing diets on humans as well as our genetic individuality.
Even in identical twin nutrition studies the results were mixed because it seems we all react differently to foods. The diet that suits one person may not be right for another and may even be detrimental to health.
Does Eating Fat Make You Gain Weight?
Along with the low fat diet and calorie counting advice for weight loss came countless cholesterol scares. High fat foods were said to be responsible for weight gain, raised cholesterol and higher heart disease risk.
There is still no clear cut answer about the best diet at the moment, what suits one person may not be good for another.
Fat is one of the three essential macronutrients along with carbohydrates and protein. It is recently understood to be more specifically the types of fat and carbohydrates in the diet, as well as individual genetics that determines whether a food is healthy or harmful.
Unhealthy fats or bad fats
It is clear that trans fats which are normally listed as hydrogenated oils are inflammatory and extremely bad for our health. Fried foods and processed foods often contain these trans fats and should ideally be excluded or at least greatly minimised in our diets.
This includes foods such as shop bought baked goods such as cakes, biscuits, pizza and pies. These foods, which are bad for our health, are often made with chemically altered vegetable oils, artificial additives, refined flour and sugar.
Processed foods and refined ingredients are normally high in starch and sugar as well as artificial additives to enhance flavour and extend shelf life, these foods are therefore best avoided most of the time. A meal or snack that combines poor quality fats with refined sugar is a recipe for disaster.
Are dairy products healthy?
Dairy foods are another matter for lengthy debate which could fill a whole article. Lactose intolerance is common. Due to biochemical individuality high-fat meals and dairy products may cause an inflammatory response in some people. In other studies though, dairy foods actually had an anti-inflammatory effect.
Contrary to past findings about the negative effects of the saturated fat content in high fat dairy products. New research now suggests, compared with milk consumption, cheese may actually improve cholesterol markers have some health benefits due to fermentation. This basically means nutritional advice should be personalised for the individual.
What are Healthy Fats for Weight Loss?
Monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids are thought to be the most healthful fats. These types of fats are thought to be helpful for reducing weight gain and inflammation.
Monounsaturated fats, omega-7 and omega-9 fatty acids, are not essential because our body can produce them from other unsaturated fats.
Which fats to eat for weight loss?
Polyunsaturated fats, omega-6, however are essential and must be included on our diet because we cannot produce them. The western diet tends to have a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.
These are the types of fat most people should include in their daily diet even when trying to lose weight. Studies have found whole food, plant-based sources of healthy fats such as nuts and seeds can help encourage weight loss and prevent weight gain.
What about cholesterol?
The fats we call healthy fats are naturally occurring dietary fats. These have been shown to benefit the heart and improve blood glucose. They have also been shown to improve insulin levels and reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels. This is sometimes refereed to as the bad cholesterol.
A small amount of cholesterol in the body is essential for health but it does not need to come from the diet because the body can make all it needs.
It is thought that high cholesterol LDL levels may lead to a build up of fatty plaques in the arteries which can reduce blood flow to the heart and brain.
Particle size and genetics are also important considerations for healthy cholesterol balance. Additional nutrition studies are needed to understand the long-term effects of different types dietary fat on health.
Fat nutrition facts for weight loss
Eating fat doesn’t necessarily make you fat, it’s not that simple. Fat is also needed to make hormones and some fats are essential. Certain types of dietary fat may have other important health benefits as well.
Fats may help in protecting our organs. They play an important role in maintaining cell membranes, hormone balance, promoting growth and development. As well as the absorption of essential A, D, E and K vitamins.
Even though fat contains more calories, including small amounts of natural fats in a meal is healthy for most people. Fats can also slow down the release of sugars and carbohydrate. This may help to keep you feeling fuller for longer.
Are Keto diets healthy?
The ketogenic diet is based on high fat, moderate protein and low carbohydrates. It is similar to the Atkins and other low carbohydrate diets. A Keto diet forces the body to switch to burning ketones instead of carbohydrates for fuel.
Very high fat diets such as Keto diets should be used with caution. They are often nutritionally unbalanced and could cause disordered eating.
Keto diets are popular at the moment in weight loss communities. They may be helpful in the short term particularly for morbidly obese patients who require rapid weight loss, before switching to a healthier diet and lifestyle.
Keto diet dangers!
A Keto diet may cause constipation, kidney stones and blood pressure problems. It been found to increase the risk of heart disease and be unsafe for people with pancreas, gallbladder, liver or thyroid conditions. More studies are therefore needed on the effects of Keto diets on long term health.
Ketogenic diets have been used successfully by the medical profession for management of severe epilepsy and brain disorders. They are not currently recommended for the general population, unless under the care of a medical or nutrition professional.
The importance of healthy fats
I have seen many weight loss clients still restricting fats due to the over focus on calories. It is the nutritional quality of our food that is most important for both health and weight loss.
The best diet is one that you can sustain and enjoy long term. Yo-yo dieting is not recommended because it can lead to metabolic issues.
Healthy fats, especially from whole foods, when consumed as part of a balanced meal, are often beneficial for weight loss. They might also lower the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Dietary fats can provide the essential fats and nutrition that your body needs. It can not produce these essential fats by itself.
Which Foods Contain Essential Fats?
All fats, including saturated fatty acids, have important roles in the body. The most important essential fats, omega-3,6 unsaturated fats, can not be made in the body but can be found in whole foods.
Fatty fish such as herring, sardines, mackerel and salmon are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. Two or three servings of fatty fish per week are recommended for optimum levels of unsaturated and omega 3 fatty acids.
Plant-based sources of omega 3 are found in nuts and seeds such as flaxseed, walnuts and leafy vegetables. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is essential for good health.
ALA omega-3 fatty acids are most commonly found in plants. However, ALA needs to be first converted to EPA or DHA by the body to be utilised.
This conversion process is inefficient in humans. Research has found that women appear to have a slightly more effective process than men. Studies have shown only 1-10% of ALA is converted to EPA and only 0-5% into DHA.
Algae based omega 3 supplements containing EPA and DHA may be a more reliable source for people following a plant-based diet, vegans and vegetarians.
Saturated fats found in meat, butter, cheese and bakery products are not essential fats as our body can make all we need. Studies have previously found that diets high in saturated fats may increase the risk of heart disease.
More recently though a 2015 meta-analysis conversely found no association between saturated fat and all cause mortality. Although there were limitations in the methodology which were stated in this meta-analysis.
Some people may process fats more efficiently than others and this difference could be genetic. More research is clearly needed in this area.
Essential fats are obtained from food
Research does however show that plant-based fats such as nuts, seeds, olives and avocados are beneficial to include in your diet. Plant-based fats may help to support immunity, energy and brain health. These foods may turn out to be more universally healthier than animal sources.
A small handful of nuts, 2 tablespoons of nut butter or seeds and 10 olives is considered a portion. Extra virgin olive oil, or coconut oil are best for cooking.
Weight loss, especially long term weight loss is not as simple as cutting certain foods out of your diet. Our bodies are complex and quite often individual advice is needed for successful weight maintenance.
Nurturing a positive relationship with food, focusing on sleep and reducing stress is also important for health and happiness. If you are struggling to lose weight and would like more information please see this Weight Loss Nutrition page for more information.
References & Bibliography
Dietary fat, the gut microbiota, and metabolic health – A systematic review conducted within the MyNewGut project
Dietary fat intake and metabolic syndrome in adults: A systematic review
Intake of saturated and trans unsaturated fatty acids and risk of all cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes: systematic review