Fat: Our New Friend!

eggs, milk and butter

Healthy “fatty foods” are finally beginning to shake their bad reputation. Our new friends—avocados, nuts, and olive oil, have become increasingly popular due to their healthy fat content. As consumers, we are starting to see fats incorporated at almost every meal— avocado on toast, coconut oil used in cooking, a compliment of nut-butters offered as nutritious snacks.

In the past, saturated fat was thought to be linked to heart disease and strokes, but it turns out that this may have been a big, fat lie.

A 2010 meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition pooled together data from 21 studies and included almost 350,000 people tracked for an average of 14 years. This study concluded that there is no relationship between the intake of saturated fat and the incidence of heart disease or stroke.
(Siri-Tarino et al. 2010)

Educating Americans on proper fat consumption.

Foods with a higher fat content are finally making a comeback after they were wrongfully blamed for playing a large part in the rise of obesity in the United States. But, as we remain a nation with a growing obesity problem, it is very difficult for organizations like the U.S. Department of Health to begin recommending foods with higher fat content.

However, we are now finding ways that involve healthy eating to educate Americans on proper fat consumption. In February 2016, Mintel Global Market Research presented a 2016 Global Food + Drink Trend on how fat is shedding its stigma. The report noted, “confusion regarding ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’ fats has led the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee to recommend that the 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines focus on optimizing types of dietary fat rather than reducing fat intake. The committee hopes this will ‘encourage a healthier relationship with dietary fats.’” (Mintel, 2016).

 Source: Bio-Kinetics

In January 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released: New Dietary Guidelines to Encourage Healthy Eating Patterns to Prevent Chronic Diseases which includes recommendations to eat oils from plants (canola, corn, olive, peanut, safflower, soybean, and sunflower) as well as nuts, seeds, seafood, olives, and avocados in order to prevent chronic disease.

The Big Picture

Fat is a macronutrient and our body actually requires fat to function properly. While healthy foods with a high-fat content may be dense in caloric value, they pack a very powerful punch. Healthy foods with good fat content can provide energy and help maintain overall body health.

So while it may go against your instincts to eat butter or olive oil, here is why you should:

A healthy fat diet supports your brain, maintains cell membranes, and helps to cushion your organs for protection.

 As far as your brain is concerned, certain fats (like omega-3 and omega-6) protect the nerve fibers and enable your brain to send messages faster. Fat also helps your body absorb vitamins, particularly the fat-soluble vitamins K, D, E, and A. Because of these benefits, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends we get roughly 20% – 35% of our daily calories from fat. So, if you consume 2,000 calories a day that should include between 400-700 calories from fat.

However, this is not to say you shouldn’t be careful with your fat intake. Less than 200 of these calories should be saturated fat, to ensure the majority of your calories from is unsaturated. Additionally, your body stores excess fat in its cells until it is needed for energy. So if you consume more fat than you use for energy, your fat cells expand and you will probably notice your waistline start to increase…

Fat is made up of fatty acids and the number of fatty acids that are present in food indicates how the food is classified—with either a high or low-fat content. In addition to the number of fatty acids present, you must also look at the most heavily prevailing type of fatty acid. The most heavily prevailing type of fatty acid indicates whether the food is high in either saturated or unsaturated fat.

A healthy amount of fat provides more energy per gram than both protein and carbohydrates.

One gram of fat = nine calories for energy, whereas one gram of carbohydrate or protein = only four grams for energy.

Saturated vs. Unsaturated Fat

Saturated and unsaturated fats are distinguished by the chemical composition of their fatty acid chain.

Saturated fat is very stable while unsaturated fat (the healthy fat) is less dense at room temperature. Stored at room temperature, unsaturated fats are liquid (like olive oil) whereas saturated fats are typically solid (like butter). While unsaturated fat is healthier for your body than saturated fat, you need both to maintain a healthy diet— you just need more unsaturated fat than saturated fat!

Unsaturated Fat = A Good Friend

When unsaturated fats are broken down, they help raise your body’s good cholesterol levels. This is where it gets a little complex but stay with us…Cholesterol is actually a type of fat. There is both bad and good cholesterol: LDL and HDL.

LDL (low-density lipoprotein) is bad and HDL (high-density lipoprotein) is good. Cholesterol helps your body function properly, but too much of it will put you at risk for a heart attack or stroke.

By minimizing the LDL cholesterol that is present in your blood, unsaturated fats actually help protect your body against the harm that can be caused by excess saturated fats and high cholesterol.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 73.5 million adults in the United States have high LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, which will negatively affect their long term health.

When you eat unsaturated fat, your HDL levels increase. This increase enables your cells to grab onto the bad LDL compounds and carry them to the liver. This process is called reverse cholesterol transport. When the LDL compounds are in the liver, they are properly broken down and eliminated from your body. By minimizing the LDL cholesterol present in your blood, unsaturated fats actually help protect your body against the harm that can be caused by excess saturated fats and high cholesterol.

Saturated Fat = Friendly Acquaintance

Saturated fats do not contain any double bonds in their chemical composition, making them denser than unsaturated fat. Saturated fat can raise your body’s overall cholesterol levels (including LDL cholesterol). The most well-known foods that contain saturated fat are meat and dairy products. Beef and cheese, for example, contain more saturated fatty acids than an unsaturated fatty acid.

While it is important to be aware of the amount of saturated fat you consume, there are healthy foods that contain saturated fatty acids. The American Heart Association recommends that roughly 120 calories (5-6%) of our total daily calories come from saturated fat. New research indicates that a diet that incorporates saturated fats may not cause an increased risk for Cardiovascular Disease or Coronary Heart Disease. While this isn’t definitive, it is certainly something to watch!

If you follow the daily recommended intake for both saturated and unsaturated fat and you live an active lifestyle, you will find these fats are more your friend than your enemy.

Linoleic omega-6 and linoleic omega-3 are the only two fats that your body cannot synthesize from other fatty acids. Thus, they need to be replenished through your food or supplements. These essential fats are found in sesame seeds and nuts for omega-6 and flax seeds and fatty fish for omega-3. 

Within the unsaturated fat “family”, there are different types of fatty acids. There are 2 main groups of unsaturated fats: polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. Polyunsaturated fatty acids have a handful of double bonds, whereas monounsaturated fatty acids only have one. Your body is able to make fatty acids with one or no double bonds. However, the human body is unable to create two types of polyunsaturated fat, which are essential fatty acids in human nutrition.

Trans Fat = Foe

Unlike unsaturated fat and saturated fat, which can be healthily incorporated into your daily regimen, you should be very mindful of trans fats. In fact, you want to avoid partially hydrogenated oils (PHO) as much as possible! PHO is most prevalent in heavily processed foods. Unlike saturated and unsaturated fat, hydrogenated fats are very unnatural substances.

PHOs were actually created by food processing companies after saturated fat was thought to be detrimental to overall body health. To replace saturated fat, food scientists created trans fat from unsaturated fat. Because unsaturated fat has a shorter shelf life, they needed to make the substance more solid in order to have the same functionality as saturated fats at a lower cost. In order to make the unsaturated fat solid, it is hydrogenated. Your body is not familiar with partially hydrogenated oils and thus is not able to properly digest them.

So, what does all this mean for your body?

While fatty acids are present in almost all food to some extent, the amount of each fatty acid indicates its health value. For example, the most heavily prevailing fatty acid in an avocado is oleic acid, which is unsaturated fat. However, while unsaturated fat is the most prominent fatty acid present, saturated fatty acids are present as well—but this doesn’t mean the food is bad! The weight of saturated fat is roughly 15% while the weight of unsaturated fat is roughly 79%.

In addition to avocados, foods like salmon, seeds, nuts, olive oil, coconut oil, flax, vegetables, and legumes will provide healthy, unsaturated fat that will help maintain your body’s good cholesterol, suppress LDL cholesterol, and keep your cells healthy!

There are many ways to get a variety of good fats. For example, you can consume 2 tablespoons of butter (102 calories per tablespoon), 1/2 a cup of sliced almonds (250 calories), 1 tablespoon of peanut butter (90 calories), and 1 tablespoon of olive oil (118 calories) for 560 calories of fat. This remains within the 400-700 calorie recommended consumption.

A well-balanced diet that includes the recommended amount of healthy fats, paired with exercise and the appropriate amount of sleep, will help keep you healthy.

Is a Plant-Based Diet Better for You?

green vegetables on display at a market

Mintel 2017 Global Food and Drink Trends dubbed 2017 “Power to the Plants” stating that “consumers will be looking for natural, simple, and flexible diets. This will drive further expansion of vegetarian, vegan, and other plant-focused formulations. In 2017, the priority for plants will drive an acceleration in new products and marketing that casts plants in starring roles.”

Based on the latest readings on vegetarianism and veganism from Gallup, 5% of Americans say they are vegetarians and 3% say they are vegans, numbers that have remained consistent since 2012. Overall it appears “Americans are eager to include alternatives to animal products in their diets but are not willing to give up animal products completely. ”

People may be motivated to adopt a vegan or vegetarian diet for a variety of reasons, including ethical concerns about animal production or the environmental impact of agriculture, religious beliefs or health concerns.

As the demand for plant-based protein increases, food processing companies are responding—hoping to create brand loyalty as more consumers hop on the meatless bandwagon. According to Mintel Market Research, “there has been a 25% increase in vegetarian claims and a 257% increase in vegan claims in global food and drink product launches between 2010 to 2011 versus 2015 to 2016.”

Many consumers are flexitarians

The push for plant-based products goes beyond the stricter practices of vegans and vegetarians. The majority of this demand is actually being driven by the growing number of consumers that have been labeled “flexitarian.” As we discussed in “A New Burger,” 59% of consumers in the U.S. are considered “flexitarian” because they eat a protein alternative at least once a week.  Mintel’s 2016 Report on U.S. Diet Trends indicated this was likely due to the fact that dieters believe “that following a vegetarian/vegan diet is the most natural and healthy way to lose weight.” As a result, dieters are increasingly likely to buy more plant-based products over the next year.

Almost a third of Millennials indicate they consume any meat alternative product every day, with 70% consuming them at least a few times a week, notably more than any other generation.  Coupled with the size and spending power of Millennials, this indicates a strong potential market for meat alternatives in the future.”

Billy Roberts, Senior Food and Drink Analyst, Mintel

Eric Pierce, the host of Natural Products Expo West, also highlighted the rise in demand for plant-based products. Pierce said, the appeal and potential for vegan products are expanding beyond the small group of people who avoid animal products for ethical reasons to include the much larger base of consumers seeking healthier, cleaner foods.”

While the smallest number of these consumers are strict vegans (meaning no meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, or any other animal-derived product) there are varying levels of vegetarianism. Lacto-ovo vegetarians, for example, do not eat meat poultry or fish but will eat eggs and dairy. Lacto vegetarians abstain from eggs as well but will consume dairy. And ovo-vegetarians will eat eggs but will not eat dairy. Lastly, partial vegetarians or pesco-vegetarians will not eat meats but will incorporate fish into their diet.

Food processing companies are more creating products, such as vegan protein powder, soy, nut or rice milk, and vegan protein bars hoping to peak the interest of these health-minded, “flexitarian” consumers.

According to Harvard Medical School, some of the most noteworthy, but strictly short-term, studies for a plant-based diet are the following:

  • “A study published in the March 9, 2015, issue of JAMA Internal Medicine suggests that a meat-free diet can reduce the risk of developing colon cancer.
  • A study published February 22, 2013, in Cancer Epidemiology found that eating a vegetarian diet reduced the overall risk of all cancers compared with eating a non-vegetarian diet.
  • A study published June 3, 2013, in JAMA Internal Medicine showed that vegetarian diets were associated with a 12% lower risk of death from all causes—not just cancer. The benefits were especially strong for men.”

It is critical to note that many of the short-term studies performed were not randomized, including the ones listed above, meaning there was no control group to compare results and therefore they cannot truly determine if a vegetarian diet is healthier than a well-balanced diet that incorporates meat. There is also a need for long term studies that may help to verify (or discredit) the results presented in the short term.

It should also be noted that some researchers attribute the results of the short term vegetarian studies to the conscious decisions of the individuals who have chosen to be vegetarian or vegan as an overall healthier lifestyle. If someone is choosing to be a vegan or vegetarian, it can often be correlated that they exercise regularly, do not drink alcohol excessively, and do not smoke tobacco. Those who are making healthy choices in their diet are most likely making healthy choices regularly in their life.

“Eliminating meat” may not be the best solution to a healthy diet

While it is certainly healthy to incorporate more plant-based foods into your diet, maintaining a diet without meat, poultry, or fish often means adding vitamins, minerals, fats, and protein sources to your diet.

Unless you follow recommended guidelines on nutrition, fat consumption, and weight control, becoming a vegetarian won’t necessarily be good for you.” (Harvard Medical School)

By eliminating meat from your diet, you may face nutrient deficiencies (unless an effort is made to replace them). For example, meat, poultry, and fish are high in B vitamins (niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, and B6), iron, zinc, vitamin E, magnesium, omega-3’s, and of course… protein! Soy, whey and plant-based proteins can be good alternatives, but they are not meant to replace all protein sources in your diet.

According to the USDA’s Choose My Plate, the average adult should consume roughly 5-6 ounces of protein (chicken, beef, nuts, eggs) per day and about 8 ounces of seafood is recommended per week. This is because protein is essential in keeping healthy bones and muscles. Protein is considered a “building block” for your body’s enzymes, hormones, and vitamins. 

According to the USDA, protein is important for the following reasons:

  • “It supports bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood. Proteins are also one of three nutrients that provide calories (the others being fat and carbohydrates).
  • B vitamins found in this food group serve a variety of functions in the body. They help the body release energy, play a vital role in the function of the nervous system, aid in the formation of red blood cells, and help build tissues.
  • Iron is used to carry oxygen in the blood.
  • Magnesium is used in building bones and in releasing energy from muscles.
  • Zinc is necessary for biochemical reactions and helps the immune system function properly.”
(Source: Choose My Plate)

Meat and Diary are great sources of protein


One cooked chicken breast is roughly 3 ounces— which can suffice as half of your daily serving of protein. Healthy fish that are high in protein include salmon, tuna, halibut, or snapper. Dairy is also a good source of protein. Yogurt with almonds, chia, or hemp seeds is a good way to satisfy a serving of protein in the morning One egg has roughly six grams of clean protein. 

Lean beef, which can be included less frequently into your diet than poultry, fish, or eggs, provides roughly 30 grams of protein per serving. According to WebMD, women should consume roughly 46 grams of protein per day while men should consume close to 60 grams per day.

While there are a significant amount of recent studies touting the advantages of a meat-free diet, there are no definitive long term results that say you should eliminate all meat from your diet.

To prove this, some preliminary research has been performed using Adventist participants. Seventh-day Adventists avoid meat and abstain from alcohol and tobacco. A 2014 study indicated Adventist vegetarians demonstrated lower risk for cardio-metabolic issues and some cancers. However, the findings were not conclusive enough to make definitive dietary recommendations based on the results.

Some promising studies have been performed regarding the “Mediterranean diet,” which encourages plant-based eating and includes significant consumption of healthy oils (particularly through fish, nuts, and copious olive oil). A Mediterranean approach to eating also includes some poultry intake and very limited red meat consumption. The randomized studies that have been performed indicate that following the Mediterranean diet is a healthy approach to eating. A lower risk of cardiovascular disease, lower levels of LDL cholesterol, and a reduced rate of some cancers were reported.