When it comes to fat consumption, it often seems like there’s a lot of noise and little agreement about how much (or how little) you should eat. This can be frustrating for people who are trying to be healthy and follow expert recommendations, and it’s tempting to try to eliminate fat intake altogether and let the experts fight it out.
But is the amount of fat you eat really the issue? According to the Harvard School of Public Health, it’s time to end the low-fat myth. Research has shown that the number of calories from fat that you eat, whether high or low, isn’t really linked with disease. What really matters is the type of fat.
Unsaturated fats, which are found in nuts, avocadoes, fish and vegetable oils, are considered “good” fats. Some of these, like omega-3 fatty acids, are considered essential fats that must be eaten regularly because the body cannot produce them internally.
Saturated fats, which are found in cheese, butter, red meat and some oils, have long been seen as a key culprit of heart disease and high cholesterol.
The American Heart Association, along with the Harvard School of Public Health, recommends limiting saturated fat consumption, but cautions against doing so by choosing products that replace fat with sugars and other refined carbohydrates.
In fact, a 2009 review published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that replacing saturated fats with carbs had no discernable benefits, while replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats reduced the risk of heart disease.
Finally, there are trans fats, found in heavily processed breads, baking mixes, shortening, snack foods and fried foods. For once, there is little disagreement—the overwhelming scientific consensus suggests that trans fats are dangerous. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration took the dramatic step of seeking to redefine artificial trans fats as “generally not recognized as safe.”
As for obesity, the trend is clear: Over the past 30 years in the United States, the percentage of calories from fat in people’s diets has gone down, but obesity rates have skyrocketed. This suggests that limiting fat intake is not a silver bullet for weight loss.
With the exception of trans fats, eliminating all fat to make your overall diet healthier is a bad idea. The key to a healthy diet, including fat intake, has always been balance.