Thursday, February 9, 2012

Fat: friend or foe?

I grew up believing that fat was unhealthy, and should be avoided at all costs.  My whole family bought into this concept, and as a result, we spread margarine on our toast instead of butter (in fact, for years I told everyone I "didn't like" butter because it weirded me out-- it was that foreign to me!).  I even remember my mom buying a "Fat Free Living" cookbook, and we would buy "low-fat" and "fat-free" versions of everything.  It was always the first, and sometimes the only thing I would glance at when I checked a nutrition label, and much of my decision of whether or not to eat a certain item was based on how much fat was present.

It's been so ingrained in me that I still fight the urge to focus solely on a food product's fat content, even though I now know better.  I realize, however, that many people still haven't seen the light, so I will do my best to convince you that, despite everything you may have heard in your life, fat isn't as bad as you think it is, and there are more important things to think about when examining a food label than how much fat there is.

I stumbled across this article called Why Women Need Fat, and I thought it was a great starting point for this discussion.  So, here's a breakdown of why fat isn't as bad as you think it is:
  • Your body needs fat in order to absorb fat soluble vitamins, build and repair cell walls, make hormones, etc.. And as the article says, your body "intuitively" knows what it needs (I'm loving the fact that they used the word "intuitive", by the way!), so if you think you can "trick" your body by giving it apple pie flavored gum when it really wants the real thing, think again!  Your body isn't stupid enough to think those two things are the same!  And if your body wants fat (because it intuitively knows that it needs it), it won't be satisfied until you give it fat, and if you don't give in to this need, you may find yourself eating various other food items instead, and eventually eating more calories than if you had just given in and eaten the fatty food you were craving in the first place. 
  • Fat helps you stay full longer.  Fat provides more energy and staying power than lower fat foods.  So, if you're in tune with your hunger signals, this means that fatty foods will satisfy you more quickly, and you'll be satisfied for a longer period of time.  If you opt for lower fat foods, you'll have to eat more of them to fill up, and you'll likely find yourself hungry for more much sooner.
  • "Low fat" or "Fat free" options aren't always better for you. Because people are so focused on the fat content of the food they're eating, they might not notice what other items are being added to a food in order to make it "low-fat" or "fat-free."  Many "light" versions of sweet foods will add additional sugar in order to make it taste as good or almost as good as the full fat version.  So in the end, you're really not saving any calories.  Plus, your body knows it's not getting the full fat version, so you tend to eat more of it and get hungrier sooner after eating it.  Other foods might use chemicals to replace the fat that's been taken out.  I don't know about you, but I'd much rather eat something that my body knows how to break down and process, versus some chemical that is doing who-knows-what to my system.  
  • It's the type of fat that matters.  Of course, I'm not telling you to go out and eat donuts and french fries all day every day (although, if that's what you want to do, I encourage you to go out and give it a try and see how many days it takes before you beg for a salad, because you probably won't feel so hot!).  As the article suggests, people in today's society are consuming far too many Omega 6 fatty acids, instead of Omega 3s.  While it's okay to have both, Omega 3 fats should ideally outweigh the Omega 6s, and for most people, especially in this country, that's just not true.  Omega 6 fatty acids are found in fast food and most snack foods, as well as refined vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds.  Omega 3s can be found in fish (especially salmon, tuna, anchovies, and sardines), eggs, flax seed, and olive oil.  And, as if you needed another reason to eat organic meat and poultry, the amounts of Omega 3s in animals raised eating grass (which is the organic method of raising them) is much higher than their grain- and corn-fed counterparts (which is how most animals are fed these days).  As the article suggests, if you have trouble getting Omega 3s into your diet, try sprinkling ground flax seed on your oatmeal or in your yogurt, or take a fish oil supplement like I do (just make sure it's a quality, purified one!).  
    • Besides being aware of Omega 3 and 6 fats, you should also try to avoid hydrogenated or trans fats.  These fats are created through a chemical process that turns a liquid fat into a solid-- this is how things like margarine and shortening are made.  Unfortunately, your body doesn't really know how to handle these types of fats, so they tend to gunk up your arteries and lower your HDL ("good") cholesterol levels, thus increasing your risk of heart disease.

So the bottom line is, as the article states, "We have to go back to basics."  Instead of choosing processed foods that are loaded with trans fats and high fructose corn syrup, you'd probably be better off eating a real food with higher fat content that your body knows how to process, and will satisfy you and keep you satisfied longer.

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