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The Evolving Research on Dietary Fats: What You Need to Know


What are fats? Typically, when hearing the word “fat,” people may associate it with unhealthy processed foods, chemically infused products, or simply something that causes weight gain and organ issues. However, the world of fats is not as clear cut as it may seem. There are several good fats that actually help sustain a healthy lifestyle, while other nutritional fats must be taken in more controlled amounts.


Before diving into what is considered good fat and what is not, let’s take a look at what unsaturated fats are in their simplest scientific form. According to the Department of Nutrition at the University of California, Davis campus, “Fats are a subset of a class of nutrients called lipids, which also include phospholipids and sterols,” [1]. These classes create a cluster of molecules which come together to create a triglyceride. These fatty cells are found in the blood and stored in the fat cells, later released for energy by hormones [2]. However, like in anything we consume, everything must be at a moderated amount. If the body consumes too many triglycerides it can result in a higher risk of heart disease. The lower the level of triglycerides the healthier the body, but the human system is still in need of nutritious fats to function properly, and it is advised by many to avoid eating extremely low levels of fat just for the purpose of maintaining or trying to achieve a slim figure [3].


Most of the fat required is already produced by the body, but there are some fats it cannot create, and these types of fats are obtained through specific foods. These acquired fats are called “essential” fats because they’re essential for the body to function. These fats are then broken down into two categories: monosaturated fats and polysaturated fats.


Essential fats like omega-3 (found in foods like fish and flax seed) and omega-6 (found in foods like nuts, seeds, and various oils) fall under the polysaturated fats that help absorb vitamins, like vitamins A, D, E, and K, and help keep the skin young and healthy. Another beneficial side effect of consuming an appropriate amount of essential fats like omega-3s is promoting and maintain good heart health. Furthermore, a medically reviewed article written by Caitlin Geng on Medical News Today stated, “omega-3 fatty acids may also help prevent bowel disease, asthma, and some mental health conditions,” [4].


Monosaturated fats, found in plant oils, can help lower levels of LDL (low density lipoprotein) cholesterol [3]. Monosaturated fats are heavily found in olive, peanut, and canola oils, avocados, nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts, and pecans, and seeds such as pumpkin and sesame seeds [5]. Although canola oil is higher in monounsaturated fat, it’s also an excellent source of polyunsaturated fat [5]. Fats also can simply add flavor to foods and keep the body satisfied longer after a meal [3]. These fats are better alternatives to saturated fats, often referred to as “trans fats,” which are found in processed foods or foods with higher fat content, like various fattier meats and wheat products [6]. Although red meat is a wonderful source of protein, it needs to be consumed in smaller amounts in a balanced diet because of its higher fat content.


As stated earlier, these fats seem clear cut in the do’s and don’ts of dieting but not as clear as one might believe. Over the decades, societies have trained the public into thinking the word “fat” consists of unnatural chemical-laced products or that good fats should be consumed less than what is needed for people’s respective sizes and ages. For several decades, an array of dietary programs often promoted a heavier hand in one section of the food groups and cutting out or reducing the intake amount of another. These programs rarely use a good balance of all food groups, which leaves many consumers thoroughly confused and defeated. Low-fat, low-calories, and high-protein weight loss diets were all the rage in the 1980s and 1990s. Then, cutting various fruits, vegetables, and lean meats out or turning to liquid diets were the innovative fads of the new millennium. This drained people of good natural fats and vitamins from a variety of foods and left consumers disappointed if the results ended with health issues or little to no progress in their weight loss. The British Medical Journal (BMJ) conducted a study stating, “The assumption that diets high in fat promote weight gain is based on the relative energy density of macronutrients—9 kcal/g for fat compared with 4 kcal/g for carbohydrate or protein. This assumption, however, ignores the important role of macronutrients in hunger and satiety and in pathways regulating fuel partitioning, fat storage, and fatty acid metabolism,” [7]. Western societies have become so focused on old definitions that have become engrained in society that the good side of “fat” is often overlooked or not well-defined across the board.


The National Library of Medicine stated it is essential for nutritionists to communicate effectively to consumers using “the scientific discourse of public understanding of dietary fats and health as an example of challenges in scientific communication,” [8]. As a result of the endless articles, studies, and media influencers promoting dietary recommendations promising miracle-fast results, there seems to be an incohesive number of different voices all claiming their way is the best. It is important to have a balance of healthy fats and calories to obtain energy and decrease the consumption of unhealthy fats to prevent future medical issues. The National Library of Medicine also concluded after a substantial amount of body of research, “the unique health benefits of dietary patterns and foods that contain plant and marine sources of unsaturated fats. Yet, after decades of focus on low-fat diets, many consumers, food manufacturers, and restauranteurs remain confused about the role of dietary fats on disease risk and sources of healthy fats. Shifting dietary recommendations to focus on food-based dietary patterns would facilitate translation to the public and potentially remedy widespread misperceptions about what constitutes a healthful dietary pattern,” [8]. The National Library of Medicine stated scientific communications about nutrition is a civic duty and has been suggested to include their discoveries in academic trainings to minimize the rising levels of nutritional misrepresentation [8]. Better communication from the scientific fields would not only help the consumer understand what is best for dietary needs without the constant yo-yo trends popping up every few years or so resulting in a higher obesity rate from constant disappointment, but it would also boost the integrity of the nutritional field and their scientific discoveries.


So where does all of this leave the consumer? There is nothing wrong with indulging in fattier foods every now and then as a special treat, but for everyday consumption, the easiest solution to a well-balanced diet is making it simpler than what society had made out to be in the past several decades. It doesn’t have to be stressful or leave you feeling starved at the end of the day. Societies across the globe have lived off simple natural foods that possessed the nutrients the human body craves without the interference of fake ingredients. Oils, nuts, berries, vegetables, meats, spices, grains, teas, bread, cocoa, and (when it was clean) water. These are all full of good fats and proteins that strengthen the body and mind in far more ways than any processed food can provide. However, don’t feel bad for eating a processed snack every now and again. Moderation is key!


References:

1. Dr., S. R. (2020, December 4). Nutrition & Health Info Sheets for Health Professionals - Fat. Retrieved from UC Davis: Department of Nutrition: https://nutrition.ucdavis.edu/outreach/nutr-health-info-sheets/pro-fat


2. Mayo Clinic Staff. (2022). Triglycerides: Why do they matter? Retrieved from Mayo Clinic: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-cholesterol/in-depth/triglycerides/art-20048186


3. What Are Fats? (n.d.). Retrieved from Health eUniveristy: Cardiac College: https://www.healtheuniversity.ca/EN/CardiacCollege/Eating/Fats/


4. Geng, C. (2002, January 30). What to Know About Essential Fatty Acids. Retrieved from Medical News Today: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/essential-fatty-acids


5. Harvard T.H. Chan: School of Public Health. (n.d.). Types of Fat. Retrieved from Harvard T.H. Chan: School of Public Health: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/fats-and-cholesterol/types-of-fat/


6. How to Eat Less Saturated Fat. (2022, March 23). Retrieved from NHS UK: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/how-to-eat-a-balanced-diet/eat-less-saturated-fat/


7. Dietary Fat and Cardiometabolic Health: Evidence,. (2022, May 5). Retrieved from The British Medical Journal: https://www.bmj.com/content/bmj/361/bmj.k2139.full.pdf


8. Nutr, J. (2017, August 30). A Healthy Approach to Dietary Fats: Understanding the Science and Taking Action to Reduce Consumer Confusion. Retrieved from National Library of Medicine : https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5577766/



 

Contributors:

Author: Emily Pau

Editor: Lauryn Agron

Health scientist: Dora Sow


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