Not All Fat Is Bad, So Let’s Stop Fearing It

fat isn't bad for youI really love science. It was my favorite part of my nutrition degree — the requirement to take a buttload of chemistry and biology classes. (Buttload was the actual degree requirement, promise.)

While most loathed and dreaded getting through organic chem, I secretly loved it. Secretly, because I didn’t want be outed as that girl the one who actually looked forward to the Friday morning lab sequester. I love science because science is fact. Something I can wrap my head around, something I can fall back on when other things don’t seem to make sense. Science makes sense.

Except when it doesn’t. See, the problem with nutrition is that the science both makes sense and doesn’t make sense all at the same time. It’s not because of a lack of quality research; it’s because research can both prove and disprove a theory all in one go. Nutrition science can show that something is fact, then turn around and demonstrate the opposite. It’s not experts trying to persuade us that something’s true when it’s not or poorly designed research studies (although there are plenty of those). It’s because while nutrition is based in science, it can’t be put into a box with a checkmark next to it that says, “yes, this is absolutely fact.”

It’s frustrating, huh? It’s why I both love and hate my job as a dietitian. I can’t tell clients that yes, this 100% will work, and this is absolutely wrong, or guarantee xyz results by doing precisely abc. See, nutrition is a science woven with art. What works for one person doesn’t work for another. What destroys one person’s body may help somebody else’s. What’s “true” one day may be wrong the next and then true again. It happens a lot, and it’s what makes people distrust nutrition. A prime example would be coffee. It helps you concentrate but gives you cancer. It improves performance but disrupts sleep. It prevents cancer; it causes hypertension. It’s no wonder people are confused.

Here’s one to wrap your head around: fat isn’t bad — even saturated fat. Now, I know most people have gotten off the low-fat bandwagon by now and appropriately so, but it’s also time to get off the fat-is-bad wagon entirely. Even for those who aren’t specifically interested in diet or nutrition, a pretty well-known standard over the years has been that saturated fat is bad for you. Regardless of whether you are pro- or anti-fat in the diet, I’ve never heard much argument against the “fact” that we should keep our saturated fat intake down. It’s always been pretty cut and dry: saturated fat clogs your arteries and leads to heart attacks.

But does it?

Saturated fat is, apparently, good for you. Or at least not terrible for you. It’s not the demonized, artery-clogging culprit we’ve made it out to be. I’ll give that a minute to sink in.

This isn’t just a claim or a new research development either. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reviewed old saturated fat research and came to a new conclusion: saturated fat doesn’t cause heart attacks. It was a logical conclusion from past research: people who had heart attacks and clogged arteries ate a lot of saturated fat, therefore saturated fat is bad for you. What the research missed was the actual cause and effect connection.

This doesn’t mean you should dive in to a plate of saturated fat, though. Remember earlier when we acknowledged science isn’t an end-all, be-all fact when it comes to nutrition? What it does mean is that we should give fat a chance.

Here’s a handful of takeaways from what we know:

- Saturated fat does raise LDL cholesterol (the artery-clogging stuff) but it also raises HDL cholesterol (the good kind) and lowers triglycerides (also good). For reference, carbohydrates raise triglycerides, which are markers of heart disease.

- Replacing dietary saturated fat with fats like polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats (like those from nuts, oils, etc.) will likely lower your cardiovascular disease risk, but replacing saturated fat with carbohydrates will not. It’s all about the context of your diet as a whole.

- The one thing everyone seems to be able to agree upon is that trans fats are bad. Avoid them.

- Most people eat way more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids, which is why you hear so much about supplementing with omega-3s. This doesn’t mean omega-6s are bad, but you want to keep the ratio in proportion. Good sources of omega-3s are fatty fish and nuts. Omega-6s are found in vegetable oils like corn, soy, and safflower.

- Most important of all, you need fat to function. Fat is required to absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K, synthesize hormones, lubricate joints, and promote the sensation of satiety (fullness).

What are you thoughts on fats? What other nutrition myths confuse you?

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