Food packaging and diet trends can be misleading. Marketing materials often lead us to believe that if we eat low-fat foods, we will be low fat too. But for many people, low-fat diets just don’t work.
“Dozens of studies have found that low-fat diets are no better for health than moderate-or high-fat diets—and for many people, they may be worse,” says my colleague Dr. Walter Willet, chairman of the Dept. of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health. “Over the past 30 years in the U.S., the percentage of calories from fat has actually gone down, but obesity rates have skyrocketed,” (The Nutrition Source).
Why low-fat diets fail:
They often replace fat with refined carbohydrates, which the body burns through quickly, leaving us hungry soon after we eat. This pattern can lead to overeating, which in turn can lead to weight gain. Plus, fast carbs (white rice, white bread, potatoes, processed snacks) are just as bad for our heart as saturated fat, and eating them in excess also raises our risk of diabetes.
The rule of energy balance states that we gain weight when we consume more calories than we need—from any source. So don’t cut fat to lose fat—cut back on calories. Mindfully choose smaller portions, or use mindfulness to curb your autopilot afternoon snacking.
And don’t fixate on the percentage of calories in your diet that come from fat. Instead, focus on choosing foods with healthy fats.
Where to find healthy fats (unsaturated fats): Plant foods are rich sources of heart-healthy unsaturated fat -- plant oils (olive oil, peanut oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, and so on), nuts and seeds (almonds, peanuts, pistachios, sunflower seeds), and avocados. Fish (such as tuna and salmon) and tofu also contain these healthy fats.
*Omega 3 fatty acids, a special kind of unsaturated fat, are especially good for us. Omega 3s are found in fish, walnuts, flax seeds, canola and soybean oils.
How to limit unhealthy fats (saturated and trans fats): Saturated fat is less healthy and raises bad cholesterol in the blood. We can’t eliminate it altogether, since foods that are sources of healthy fat – nuts, oils, fish – also contain some saturated fat. Instead, it’s best to limit foods that are high in saturated fat, such as butter, cheese and red meat.
Trans fat is the worst type of fat. Routine consumption of even small amounts raises our risk of heart disease. It’s found primarily in commercially prepared baked goods, margarine, snack foods, and processed foods that contain partially hydrogenated oil. Look for foods that says “zero trans fat” on the nutrition facts label.
What to eat instead of foods that contain bad fats: Choose foods that contain healthy fats and healthy carbohydrates—high-fiber whole grains, vegetables, fruits, beans. Don’t replace foods high in saturated fat with foods high in refined carbohydrates, since that won’t help your weight or your overall health.
To learn more about healthy fats, visit The Nutrition Source, from Harvard School of Public Health.
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