Set Aside the Fear of Fat
Posted by , MS, RD, LD, FADA

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I’ve been a dietitian long enough now to see a consistent pattern of attitudes about each macronutrient – fat, carbohydrates, and protein. First, we learn that a particular macronutrient is “bad” for us, and eliminate as much of it as possible from our eating habits in the hope we will lose weight, have better lab values, manage diseases, and live longer. Then, we realize we may have gone too far, now over-consuming the other macronutrients. For example, when we joined the low fat movement in the 1980s, we became indulgers of carbs. Eventually, we move to a place where we understand that within each macronutrient category, there are “good” and “bad” types of the nutrient.

Take fat again as an example. Historically, fear has been associated with fat for two reasons – the idea it increased the risk of heart disease and because fat has more calories than protein or carbs (fat has 9 calories per gram, protein and carbs have 4). But today, we understand we need fat in our diets. In fact, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the American Heart Association, and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics  all recommend up to 35% of daily calories come from fat (700 calories or about 78 grams for a 2,000 calorie per day diet). Fat is important because it provides us with energy, aids in the absorption of vitamins like A, D, K, and E, and provides structural material for cells and membranes.

It is important, however, to help your clients realize there are different types of fat, some of which are better than others. “Good” fats include the polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. When unsaturated fats are consumed in place of trans and saturated fat (the “bad” fats), research suggests a lowered risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Some evidence suggests omega-3, a type of polyunsaturated fat, is important for brain development in infants and young children and may potentially help with cognition as we age.

We’ve arrived at a place where we now understand that healthy eating habits are defined by the quality of choices we make, getting the most nutrition possible for the calories. Because of their many roles in the human body, we need to have fat in our eating habits. To help calm some of the fears, health professionals can counsel patients to look for foods containing good fats while maintaining the “in moderation” message. It’s choosing the “good” fats that matters.  What do you think about fat in the daily diet? Let us know!