Are You Getting Enough Fat in Your Diet?

Fat is not the enemy.

Well, dietary fat isn’t, anyway. Body fat is what we’re trying to eradicate, because it’s unhealthy and, to many people, unattractive. But nixing fats in the diet isn’t the way to go about it.

In fact, many  body fat-burning benefits can be enjoyed simply by eating more essential fatty acids — that is, fats that the body does not produce and must get from food. The difference is the source: Avocado, eggs, fish — there are lots of food options for fat that are preferable to the ones we usually see and associate with “bad” fat. Even some animal fats (yes, saturated) are necessary from time to time. And, for the record, you never, EVER need to eat trans fats. That’s the easiest diet advice you’ll ever get.

We want to focus on the importance of dietary fats this week, breaking down the different types of fats and how they can make you either lose or (we hope not!) gain body fat. There’s a lot of “don’t eat this” advice out there, and somehow, perfectly healthy essential fatty acids have gotten dragged into the conversation. We mean to clear that up this week, showing you the foods and supplements that you can take to fill in the dietary gaps you might have.

Today’s lesson: Not all fats are created equal. There are many that are great for the body. But if you’re looking for a place to start hacking and slashing, feel free to eliminate those aforementioned trans fats — derived from oils injected with hydrogen to make their shelf lives last longer, these fats are an abomination. Basic rule: If it comes in a wrapper or package, and contains “partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredients, just leave it on the shelf.

MONOUNSATURATED FATS

Found in olive oil, nuts, red meat, dairy, avocados and even some grains, monounsaturated fats are the most commonly consumed form of fats, particularly in non-Western diets. In the Mediterranean, for example, these fats can comprise a huge percentage of the typical diet — in Crete, according to one article, monounsaturated fats make up about 40 percent of the daily diet (mostly from olive oil), while its people enjoy a markedly decreased risk of coronary heart disease.

The other big benefit of this type of fat is its correlation to cholesterol in the body. Research indicates that monounsaturated fats contribute to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, with the possibility of raising HDL (healthy) cholesterol. We can’t stress this enough: Eat your natural, healthy fats! A handful of almonds, sunflower seeds, cashews or yes, even olives, can make a big difference daily.

POLYUNSATURATED FATS

These fatty acids are another source you want to involve in your diet, especially as a means of eliminating or limiting other, less healthy fats (like saturated and trans fats). ALA, DHA and EPA , and omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, are part of the polyunsaturated family and can be found in nuts, seeds, fish and leafy greens, with the emphasis on the fish — fish oil is a major provider of healthy fats, whether it’s taken in supplement form or with a diet that has plenty of seafood.

A recent study from the National Institute of Health found that these fats have a direct correlation to a lower risk of heart attack, and the Journal of Cardiovascular Medicine has suggested that omega-6 acids can prevent cardiovascular disease. Meanwhile, previously mentioned DHA is essential for organ function — particularly in the brain. Fats in general are necessary for skin, hair, nail, brain and sex organ function and health.

TRANS FATS

Again, here’s where to start cutting and slashing if you’re trying to get calories and fat out of your diet. Trans fats are, quite simply, a dietary abomination and have no worthwhile role in a healthy person’s diet. Almost universally shown in research to lead directly to elevated bad cholesterol levels and increase risk of coronary heart disease, trans fats are unnatural, unhealthy and unnecessary.

Most of what we need to know about trans fats comes from how they’re made. Because natural fats eventually spoil, food companies long ago discovered that they could sell more of their product if their product stayed on the shelf longer. To do this, they came up with a way to prevent fats that held up better over time — they took poly- or monounsaturated oils, infused them with hydrogen, and voila: They had a solid fat that could be chemically altered to taste delicious and preserve shelf life exponentially.

Of course, these fats are horrific on our bodies. In 1994, the American Journal of Public Health released a report indicating that up to 20,000 deaths occurred because of coronary heart disease in relation to increased trans fat consumption. On your labels, these are known as “partially hydrogenated oils,” and the FDA has very loose guidelines on how honest food manufacturers have to be in admitting use of trans fats. Zero grams on the label only means that there is no more than .49 grams per serving size — but with something as deadly and dangerous as trans fats, a little goes a long way.

On top of the increased risk of coronary heart disease, trans fat consumption is directly related to myriad health problems, including Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, obesity, liver dysfunction and more.

So, how can you get rid of trans fats in your diet? The first step should be to avoid processed or pre-packaged foods. When doing your grocery shopping, stick to the perimeter of the store as much as possible — produce and meat is where you’ll find whole foods, not ones injected with hydrogenated oils. Failing that, read your labels, and not just the nutrition facts — check out the ingredients, too. Partially hydrogenated oils are a dead giveaway.

Not All Calories Are Created Equal

One of the biggest mistakes we often see customers and clients making is to put The All-Important Calorie on a pedestal. The thought of “calorie expenditure” and “calore intake” seems to lord over all diets — the idea that you can control how your body processes food, and what it will look like because of it, based on sheer numbers.

Some of that is true. Nobody would argue that eating more food is more likely to cause you to gain weight, and the reverse is true as well (sometimes). But, like the title of this post says, not all calories are created equal. In fact, they’re wildly different when it comes to 1) what they provide for your body, 2) how much “bang for your buck” you’ll get from them and 3) how easy it is to consume LOTS of one kind, compared to others.

Let’s say you’re doing some shopping for snacks, and you’re trying to figure out which is the healthy option, completely based on calories alone. You stroll down the cookie aisle, and see them marked as “100-Calorie Packs.” Perfect, right? Well, not really. Because those 100 calories are high-glycemic calories from simple sugars (even little crackers are eventually broken down into extra glucose), that 100-calorie figure loses some appeal. Compare that to, say, a half cup of brown rice with olive oil stirred in (lots of calories, but full of fiber and healthy fats) or a couple sticks of string cheese. Both the latter options have more calories, but the nutrition they provide for your body are unquestionably more useful than the empty 100 calories you’d be ingesting with the cookies. This all boils down to EATING WITH A PURPOSE.

You’ll also realize, as you go about your calorie-counting, just how easy it is to underestimate them, and why the old 2,000-calories-a-day adage that the FDA uses to gauge your standard diet is pretty far off-course — everyone is different! You have to listen to your body, take note of what you see in the mirror and adjust continuously; following a hard-and-fast number that might not even apply to you is crazy. The “daily values” listed on most American food products assume an “average,” sedentary person. Athletes and those concerned with their fitness DO NOT fit this mold! If you’re exercising or trying to burn fat, you need more muscle, and more muscle requires more food, and more calories. This is what we mean when we say “bang for your buck” — yes, you will be taking in more calories, and you might even gain weight. But just like you’d rather have a 250-calorie meal that provides some nutrition to your body than a 100-calorie snack that is simply 100 extra calories floating around, standing in at a lean, fierce 125 pounds (for example) is almost always going to look better and healthier than you would at 100 pounds lighter, with no muscle tone or shape to speak of.

And, let’s not forget, one of the easiest way to lose track of calories is by drinking them. Of all the macronutrient groups, alcohol is second-“heaviest” in terms of calories — a little goes a long way in bogging down your metabolism. Obviously, a fitness-focused individual should try to limit beer, wine and liquor consumption as much as possible. But let’s not get off-track: We’re actually talking about juices, soda and sports drinks that are adding useless calories to your diet, fast.

Consider that one can of Coke is like wolfing down two candy bars, or that many flavored teas, juices, sodas and other drinks often times have as much or MORE sugar than a serving of pure maple syrup, and it’s easy to see why Americans are so fat — we drink way too many of our calories! The best option is almost always water, as it not only is calorie-free but essential to just about every bodily function you have, including your metabolism. Again, some drinks with equal calories aren’t going to be the same as others; a post-workout chocolate milk, high in calories, is clearly a better choice than a 3 p.m. can of Pepsi at your desk. Our recommendation: Fill a gallon jug with water (optionally, mix in some muscle-building BCAAs!) and make sure it’s empty by the end of the day. This keeps you hydrated and full, meaning you’re less likely to want to keep reaching for unnecessary calories in the first place.

By making smart decisions on what calories are worth eating and which aren’t, you can take control over your diet and be an informed food consumer. Remember, not all calories are created equal!