When the first ever set of U.S. Dietary Guidelines was introduced in the late 70s, fat was the ultimate villain. Americans were told to eat more fruits, veggies, whole grains, complex carbs and “naturally occurring sugars,” and less refined and processed sugars, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. They were also told that everyone except young children should opt for low-fat and non-fat dairy products. And thus began the low-fat craze of the 80s and 90s.
In the past decade, science has challenged everything that fat-free pioneers taught us. And it turns out, a lot of what we held to be true came from research aimed at taking the focus off the cardiovascular damage sugar can do and shifting the blame to saturated fat instead, a new study in JAMA Internal Medicine reveals. It was easy to embrace the notion of fat as the culprit. Logic says that eating fat will make you fat. And, yes, fat is more densely caloric than protein and carbohydrates. But we now know that avoiding fat like the plague may actually lead us to overeat and gain more weight (and that too much sugar causes health problems from obesity to arterial damage). If you’re eating fat as part of a balanced diet and getting it from good sources (read: not just candy bars and ice cream) it’s actually a good move for your health.
Here’s the real skinny on fat:
Fundamentally, we need to eat fat so our bodies can carry out basic processes.
“We need fats for several reasons,” Felicia Stoler, registered dietitian nutritionist, exercise physiologist, and author of Living Skinny in Fat Genes: The Healthy Way to Lose Weight and Feel Great, tells SELF. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble, which means they need to be bound to fat in order for our bodies to use them. Fat “acts as a transportation mechanism for fat-soluble vitamins into the body,” explains Stoler. All of these vitamins play important roles; being deficient in any comes with health consequences.
Dietary fat also helps maintain your body temperature, insulates your organs, supports hormone production and cell growth, and gives us energy. So, like, it’s kind of super important.
Fat also makes food delicious, which makes our meals more satisfying and can ultimately curb overeating, as counterintuitive as that may sound.
“Fat has 9 calories per gram versus 4 calories per gram in protein and carbs,” Caroline Kaufman, R.D., tells SELF. “Because fat is so rich in calories, it is also very satisfying. That’s good because ideally it means you could mindfully eat or use a small amount to feel full.” Because it’s so dense, it takes longer for your body to digest, keeping you fuller for longer.
Fat also gives food great flavor. It makes it tender, rich, and deeply satisfying. When you choose low-fat options, you can’t get the same flavor satisfaction, it’s less filling, and you’ll likely be left craving more. “I always tell my clients I’d rather them eat the right portion of full-fat ice cream because it’s going to taste good and the mouth-feel, taste, texture, and aroma are all there,” Stoler says. When you get that exact sensory experience you were craving and expecting, you’re more likely to be satisfied and stop eating when you’ve had enough.
When companies make low-fat versions of foods they usually have to add sugar to make up for the loss of that rich, satisfying deliciousness.
When manufacturers remove fat, they have to replace it with something to keep a similar-enough texture and taste. That something is usually sugar, which is just as bad for you if not worse, or other additives that are completely unnecessary. “Bottom line: Eat the real thing, enjoy it, and watch your portion sizes,” Kaufman says.
The key is to make sure you’re eating mostly good-for-you fats from plant sources.
The USDA Dietary Guidelines and the American Heart Association recommend limiting saturated fat intake to avoid negative impacts on cholesterol levels and heart disease risk. Newer research is a little controversial—some experts now suggest saturated fats aren’t a big deal and have more of a “neutral” effect on heart health. But most dietitians and major health organizations still suggest limiting how much you eat, especially since there are plenty of other fats with proven health benefits.
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats contain essential omega-3 fatty acids our bodies and brains need (for those previously mentioned important tasks), and have been shown to help lower blood pressure, reduce heart disease risk, and stabilize blood sugar. Stoler also suggests getting saturated fats from plant sources, like coconuts and nuts, instead of animal products. The Mayo Clinic notes that food made up mostly of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. The molecules that make up saturated fats are more tightly packed together, making them solid at room temp and harder for our bodies to break down.
Bottom line: Eating a ton of fat isn’t a great idea, but neither is blacklisting it from your diet.
Eating fat in moderation, and focusing on eating mostly mono- and polyunsaturated varieties, is an easy—and delicious—way to boost your health, satisfy your cravings, and help you make healthier food choices overall. Now go forth and indulge in some savory snacks.