There was a time when we were counseled to switch to low-fat foods to lose weight and stay healthy. Even some health authorities were recommending “low-fat” diets, suggesting that they were the best diet to prevent obesity, heart disease and other health imbalances. If you are like me, you probably took it even further and switched to "fat-free" diets, with the exception of vegetable oil for cooking and occasionally, avocado, which I now recognize is a source of good fat.
As the science of nutrition evolves, research now shows that not all fats are created equal, and each type impacts our health – and our weight – differently (Madell and Noll 2020). Let’s sort through the “bad” fats, the "in-between" fats and the “good” fats so that the next time you go food shopping, you will gravitate more towards the “good”, and stay away from the “bad” ones! This post also includes 4 ways that good fats can not only contribute positively to overall positive health outcomes, but research shows that they are effective at decreasing body fat.
Fats: The “bad”, the “in-between”, and the “good”
The “bad” fats
Let’s start with the worst of all, trans fats (NIH News in Health, 2019). These unhealthy fats are found in processed foods that often have partially hydrogenated vegetable oils in them. Trans fats can be found in fried foods (French fries, doughnuts, deep-fried dishes from fast-food restaurants), along with margarine (made with hydrogenated ingredients), vegetable shortening, and processed snacks such as cakes, cookies, crackers and pretzels (Madell and Noll 2020).
These foods can raise your LDL cholesterol, also known as bad cholesterol, while suppressing HDL, or good cholesterol. Trans fats have also been linked to an increased inflammation in the body and in turn, inflammation increases risks of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke (Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health 2022).
Trans fats also contributes to an increase in belly fat. "Diets rich in trans fat cause a redistribution of fat tissue into the abdomen and lead to a higher body weight even when the total dietary calories are controlled," according to Dr. Lawrence L. Rudel, professor of pathology and biochemistry and head of the Lipid Sciences Research Program at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine (Wake Forest, 2006).
The "in-between" saturated fats
They are found in fatty cuts of beef, pork, and lamb, dark chicken meat and poultry skin, as well as in high fat dairy foods (whole milk, butter, cheese, sour cream, ice cream), tropical oils (coconut oil, palm oil, cocoa butter) and lard. While there is nothing good in trans fats, the human body can generally handle saturated fats in moderation. Otherwise, they too can contribute to weight gain. They “typically end up being a huge excess calorie source that adds extra pounds over time”, according to the registered dietician Ann Taylor in an article published by the Cleveland Clinic. Key is also to combine them properly with other food groups for an overall balanced diet.
The “good” fats
Unsaturated – both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated – fats are needed in our diets. But they must be prepared, used and stored properly to maintain their health benefits! Health or exposure to light can decrease or even destroy their health benefits.
Monounsaturated fats: They are typically liquid at room temperature but start to turn solid when chilled. Foods with these fats can help reduce bad cholesterol levels in your blood, which in turn, can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. They also provide nutrients to help keep your body’s cells stay healthy. And they are a good source of vitamin E, an important antioxidant (American Heart Association website). Antioxidants are substances that may prevent or delay cell damage, and they can protect cells against free radicals which in turn can lower the odds of certain diseases including cancer, heart disease, cognitive decline and vision loss (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 2022). The best sources are: Olives and olive oil, avocados, nuts (such as almond, hazelnuts, pecans), and seeds (including pumpkin and sesame).
Polyunsaturated fats: Many of them contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids (Hjalmarsdottir, 2018). These are considered the best types of fats for health. Let’s briefly discuss why these fatty acids are important to your health and can support efforts to lose excess body fat.
Omega-3 fatty acids: They are an important part of a healthy diet and because the body does not have the enzymes to produce them, so we must obtain them from the foods we eat. Omega-3 fats “can improve your heart health, sharpen brain activity and help your vision and they also help reduce inflammation and support your immune system, digestion and fertility" (Cleveland Clinic 2022).
The best sources of omega-3s are fatty fish, along with some nuts (walnuts, for example) and seeds such as flax and chia.
Since some fish are high in mercury, the EWG's [Environmental Working Group] Consumer Guide recommends these low-mercury fish as being the best: wild-caught salmon, sardines, mussels, rainbow trout and Atlantic mackerel. These are considered as the best bets, with "very high omega-3, low mercury and sustainable". Others that are considered safe based on mercury content are: oysters, anchovies, pollock and herring. At the same time, the ones to be avoided include: King Mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, shark, swordfish, bluefin and bigeye tuna, canned light and albacore tuna, halibut, lobster, mahi mahi, sea bass and tilefish because their levels of mercury is "too high to eat regularly".
A very high level of exposure to "methylmercury (the only form of mercury to bioaccumulate in the human body) ... can lead to fatigue, muscle weakness and dizziness, and damage organs like kidneys and liver. Chronic low-level exposure to methylmercury has also been shown to impair brain function" (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health 2022). Pregnant women and children are especially at greater risk of mercury poisoning (EWG 2020).
Omega-6 fatty acids support brain health and overall growth and development. They are found in commonly used vegetable oils, including canola, grapeseed oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, and sunflower oils. Walnuts, almonds, pine nuts and tofu are also considered good sources of omega -6 (Jennifer Berry 2020).
The ideal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 varies, but anywhere between 1:4 and 1:1 can be optimal depending on identified imbalances in the body. Generally, Western diet are very high in omega-6 and deficient in omega-3. "...in Western diets, the ratio is 15/1-16.7/1.... A lower ratio of omega-6/omega-3 fatty acids is more desirable in reducing the risk of many of the chronic diseases of high prevalence in Western societies, as well as in developing countries, that are being exported to the rest of the world" (A.P. Simopoulos 2002).
An omega 6/omega-3 ratio of 16:1 is much high than what human beings "are genetically adapted to". Sunflower, corn, soybean and cottonseed oils contain the highest amounts of omega-6 and must be avoided, whereas butter, coconut oil, lard, palm oil and olive oil are relatively low in omega-6 (Kris Gunnars, 2018).
4 Ways that “good” fats support weight management and fat loss
1. Good fats promote satiety:
"[T]he body adapts to fat deprivation by conserving fat, not burning it .... Your body needs fat on board and responds to fat-deprivation diets by hoarding fat. It thinks you are starving" (Will Clower 2003). Therefore, fat increases the feeling of fullness and decreases the feeling of hunger.
2. Good fats enhance the fat-burning effect:
"You need fat in your diet so that you don't have to keep it in your body" (Will Clower 2003).
This means that depriving cells of healthy dietary fats creates the right conditions for the body to stop burning fat. "GLA [Gamma linolenic acid] from evening primrose and borage oils activates a metabolic process that can burn close to 50% of the body's total calories" (Vanderhaeghe and Karst 2004). Black currant seed oil is also a good source of GLA. These oils are great sources of omega-6 fatty acids, which are also considered essential because they must be obtained from foods. Omega-6 fatty acids help "regulate metabolism" (School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, 2022).
Metabolism refers to the chemical processes that take place during the conversion of foods and drinks into energy that the body needs to perform routine functions such as: breathing, digestion, managing hormone levels, regulating body temperature and even sleeping. Interestingly, too calorie reduction can slow metabolism and cause the body to start using muscle for energy. Skipping meals can also cause the body to adapt and start using fewer calories for routine body functions (Cleveland Clinic, 2022). GLA can help to restore the body's metabolism.
3. Good fats prevent belly fat:
One type of fat, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is considered as "a very powerful fatty acid ... that has been linked to long-term weight management and optimal health." Interestingly, [s]ome of the best sources of CLA are grass-fed beef and raw dairy products". In one study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, "individuals who took 3.2 grams of CLA per day had a drop in fat mass of about 0.2 pound per week (about one pound per month) compared to those given a placebo." (Mercola 2020).
Another study published in the Journal of International Medical Research showed that "participants who ingested 1.8g of CLA per day for 12 weeks experienced significant body fat reduction versus the control group" (Vanderhaeghe and Karst 2004).
"Butyric acid found in butter and ghee, is a short-chain fatty acid [good fat that] ... helps regulate the balance between fatty acid synthesis and the breakdown of fats .... Short-chain fatty acids are believed to play a positive role along with probiotics in preventing metabolic syndrome, which almost always includes abdominal obesity" (Price 2017).
A National Institutes of Health study concluded that "...[d]iets high in MUFA [monounsaturated fatty acid] promoted benefits on weight loss and body composition in women with obesity” (Kaippert 2015).
4. Good fats improve insulin sensitivity:
Insulin is a fat-storage hormone. When it is consistently high, it promotes fat buildup in the cells. "...healthy cell walls made from high quality fats lowers blood sugar and insulin levels, meaning you're more likely to burn than store fat" (Mark Hyman 2016).
How do I integrate good fats in my diet?
It starts with what goes in my cart when I go food shopping. You can do the same and rip the fat-burning benefits of these good fats:
- Nuts and seeds: My favorite nuts are almonds, walnuts, and pecans. I add ground flaxseeds and hemp seeds regularly to my bowl of homemade ceral, along with some chia and pumpkin seeds to mix things up. Diversifying helps to get the best out of each of these sources of good fat.
- Some oils including olive (medium heat if used for cooking), flax seed (never to be heated), and coconut butter and coconut oils are regulars in my pantry. As these are high in saturated fat, they can increase inflammation in susceptible people when consumed excessively. I make sure I use them in moderation.
- Wild caught fish are also packed with good fats – my two favorites are salmon and sardines.
- Avocados: I rarely leave the food store without a few avocados in my shopping bag, when I ran out at home. They are high in fiber which promotes satiety , enhance weight loss, can reduce belly fat and feed good gut bacteria along with many other nutrients that are essential optimal health. They are great sources of immune-boosting vitamins C and E, several b vitamins, potassium and copper that are both involved in blood pressure regulation. They are a calorie-dense food, with one medium avocado providing as much as 240 calories. However, its high concentration of fat and fiber, some protein and various vitamins and minerals, make avocados one of the healthiest fruits to eat.
Note that if you are not sensitive to dairy products, you can add some butter (organic and raw if you can find it) or ghee to the cart. Ghee can be more tolerated than regular butter because it is lactose-free.
Also, the key to success depends on the ability to balance sources of good fats with the right combination of the other two macronutrients, the proteins and carbohydrates. When combined properly, they support a healthy weight and waistline. Follow this link to learn more about how fiber in complex carbohydrates can help you lose weight and inches off your waistline. And click here to learn more about why lean proteins are your allies in efforts to lose excess weight and melt belly fat as well.
In my book, Belly Fat in Midlife, I discuss in detail the importance of good fats in your diet, and how fats contribute to weight loss and shrinking the waistline. You can order your copy here. It includes a chapter on fats and my long journey to recovery from healthy fats deprivation. Also, stay tuned for my upcoming online course on the importance of restoring the right balance to shrink belly fat. One of the modules in the course will show how I easily integrate good fats in my diet and you too can. If you subscribe for regular updates, you'll be the first to know the start date for the course!
Fats in general, including the good ones need to be consumed in moderation because they are high in calories. Therefore, they can easily lead to weight gain. Any excess beyond what the body needs for energy on a daily basis will contribute to weight gain and fat buildup in places we least desire it.
Nonetheless, moderation is a relative term, even when it comes to consumption of saturated fats or sources of omega-6 fatty acids. My husband, for example, can eat several tablespoons of coconut butter and uses coconut oil liberally in cooking. I cannot digest it as well but do enjoy a teaspoon of coconut butter in hot cereal or gluten-free toast, for a little sweet and creamy flavor. On the other hand, I have always enjoyed palm oil even if it too, is high in saturated fat.
Therefore, your body is the best judge. Let it guide you so that you know when you need to cut back, but by all means, add good fats to your diet. They may be what you have been needing all along to shrink your waistline. If you are already intentional in your consumption of fats, what are your favorite sources of good fats? And how are they benefitting you?
Share in the comments below!
Belly Fat in Midlife: Practical Steps to Revitalize Your Changing Body, by Rose M. Kadende-Kaiser. Burlington, North Carolina. 2020.
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