For years it was thought that if you wanted to lose weight you needed to cut your overall dietary fat intake. Low fat and fat free items could be found in aisle after aisle at the local grocery store. Diet companies would push menu plans that focused on a low fat diet. Everyone was in on it and even the medical community would encourage people to eat less fat in order to achieve good health and weight.
Those days are gone and, incredibly, the new approach actually embraces fat intake in the diet for not only good health but also for the maintenance of healthy weight. Fats and oils are comprised of fatty acids of which there are three: saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats which also include the popular omega-3 and omega-6.
Simply stated, fats are critical for overall good health. Every cell in the body in some capacity relies on fats in the diet in order to function properly. Fats play key roles in the production and maintenance of hormones and, of course, hormones play important roles in every aspect of human biology including healthy weight management. Perhaps the most studied area of the health benefits of fats is with respect to the brain, both in the prevention of disease such as dementia and more importantly, healthy early childhood brain development including fetal development.
Results from study after study and test group after test group all point in one direction: fats don’t necessarily make us fat and fat can actually contribute to weight loss. Additionally, it is the excessive intake of carbohydrates that has primarily contributed to obesity in the general population.
The body uses healthy fats in a variety of ways and does actually store them, but not necessarily in the way we are accustomed to (the image of an expanding waistline). When we think of body fat that leads to obesity, it is actually body fat derived from the body breaking down carbohydrates and storing them as body fat for later use.
Let’s break things down a little bit. Along with water and other micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals and enzymes, the body uses three major components in the diet: Protein as a primary building block and for energy; Fats for energy and a variety of bodily functions including hormones; and Carbohydrates which are mainly used as the energy that powers the body. Throughout human history our bodies have evolved to quickly identify carbohydrates and use them for energy, however when they are in abundance the body will convert and store them as body fat. This can be viewed as a survival mechanism of which there is no off switch. If the diet is loaded with excess carbohydrates the body will continue to store them as long as they are available.
Furthermore, if these excess carbohydrates come in the form of foods that are laden with artificial hydrogenated trans fats, the body will crave them in excess. There have been many studies that clearly demonstrate this association is more than just a suggestion. On the other hand, people who consume less carbohydrates and more protein and fats feel more satisfied for longer periods of time and tend to eat less in general.
Perhaps the one segment of the population that helps put all of this in perspective the best is the athlete. Athletes are always looking for a way to gain the edge on their competition and perform at their outmost personal best. Typically, this means they want to build lean muscle and reduce their overall body fat and, of course, have good reliable energy reserves. To achieve this, athletes have been increasingly migrating towards a diet with increased amounts of fats and proteins and reduced amounts of carbohydrates.
Of course all of this comes with a sizable caveat. Excessive calorie intake, regardless of the source, equals excessive weight gain. There is just no way around it. And one final note, when we look around the world at the different groups of people that live the longest lives on average and are relatively free of heart disease, obesity and cancer, they all have one thing in common. They eat a diet rich in healthy fats, and just as importantly, those fat sources vary as some of these groups live at high elevation and get most of their fats from animal sources and others groups live at a lower elevation and get their fats from marine sources.
Written by DMK of Seven Grains