When trying to lose weight or get healthy, your first impulse is usually to cut out fat as much as possible. You cook oil-less soups and stews and cut nuts out of your diet to trim your waistline and choose not to eat fat.
While this well-intentioned removal of fat in your diet seems like the logical thing to do when trying to lose fat, cutting out fat can hurt your efforts in the long run.
It can hurt your efforts because the flavor in your meals goes out with the oil and you either count the days till your diet is over and you can eat fat again or you don’t even last that long. I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be this way.
So why did fat become the enemy anyway?
The logic for cutting out fat started in the 70s when heart disease became a huge concern and the link between fat and heart disease was first established. This thinking persists today because fat contains 9 calories per gram and heart disease is still the cause of a major health crisis today. But so is obesity, which means that we’re still struggling with weight even though we’re eating less fat.
Some people do succeed at weight loss by cutting out fat, and this will happen for you too if you were eating a diet that was high in fat to begin with. You’ll see success in a short period of time by cutting it out altogether because you’re cutting down a lot of your calories, but once you’ve lost the weight you’ll find it difficult to keep the weight off for the reasons that I’ll explain next.
Why do you need fat in your diet?
Your body needs it to survive
There are certain essential nutrients that your body can only use when there’s fat present in your diet. These nutrients are the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Your body also needs fat to line the outer membranes of your cells and provide some padding for your organs. From a physical appearance standpoint, your hair, skin, and nails look better and healthier when you have some fat in your diet.
It adds much needed flavor to lower calorie fare
There’s a reason why French Cuisine is seen as one of the best in the world, and that reason is butter and other sources of fat like cooking meat with the skin. Fat gives food flavor that is hard to add in other ways. When you’re on a diet, having a shot of flavor in your meals is critical to keeping you satisfied. It also makes it easier for you to consider your new way of eating a long-term lifestyle, which is the critical ingredient to keeping the weight off once you start to lose it.
There are the health benefits of eating fat
Research continues to uncover new things on the subject of fat and metabolic diseases like heart disease and cholesterol. The additional research (1) that has been done over the years has shown that eating moderate amounts of unsaturated fats can:
- Reduce the levels of bad cholesterol, which are also known as low density lipoprotein (LDL)
- Reduces bad cholesterol without reducing the level of good cholesterol in your blood, which are also known as high density lipoproteins (HDL)
- Reduces the amount of fat circulating in your bloodstream
- Reduces the development of irregular heartbeat, a symptom that has been linked to cardiac events
- Reduces the chance of developing blood clots in your arteries, which can cause a whole host of other problems
And it can help you stay full, which is essential to any weight loss diet
When you’re on a diet, hunger is the enemy because it can lead you to abandon your resolve before you see the results you want. There is quite a body of research about how long it takes for your stomach to empty, and food containing a moderate proportion of fat take the longest to leave your stomach. This means that including a moderate amount of the right fats can help you feel fuller for longer periods of time especially when this fat is paired with slow-digesting whole grains and lean protein.
This last reason is why you’ll struggle to keep the weight off if you lose weight by cutting out fat altogether. Weight maintenance is a lot about hunger management, and giving up the fat will make it difficult to manage your hunger on a consistent basis.
What types of fat should you eat when trying to lose weight?
Not all fat is created equal. There are three main types of fats – unsaturated, saturated, and trans fats. The type of fats that you want in your diet is unsaturated fat and an easy way to identify it is by the fact that it’s liquid at room temperature and naturally cholesterol free. So vegetable oil, soybean oil, corn oil, olive oil, and nuts are all healthy sources of fat in your diet.
The types of fat that can do you harm are processed saturated and trans fats. Saturated fats are naturally occurring in animal products such as red meat (beef and pork), whole milk, and whole milk products such as cheese and butter. But processed saturated fats can be found in just about any processed food that is sweet or buttery – this is what you really want to watch out for.. Trans fats are manufactured fats that are made from plant oils.
So how can you eat fat and still lose weight?
Strategically include unsaturated fat in your diet
Fat does have a lot of calories per gram, but it can be used in your diet to help you get the benefits above. Get yourself some measuring tools and use oil in your cooking in moderate amounts.
Go for one or two tablespoons of oil to finish off your soups and stews or fry an egg with 1/2 a teaspoon of oil; trust me it’s enough. Another thing you could do is measure out nuts to use as part of your snack to get both healthy fats and protein.
A note about coconut and palm oil:
These types of oils have a higher percentage of saturated fats, but they’re still healthy for you when you buy the unrefined versions because of the other nutrients they contain.
Coconut oil has a special type of fat called Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs) that have been shown to help your body maintain an ideal muscle to fat composition, which is what you want.
And of course there are the additional vitamins – vitamin E for instance – in palm oil that make the benefits outweigh the saturated fat content.
Reduce sources of saturated fat in your diet
Saturated fats are naturally occurring in most fat-containing foods. Even olive oil and nuts contain saturated fats. The goal isn’t to eliminate it, but to become more conscious about how much of it that you’re eating.
Getting your protein from beans and other legumes, fish, poultry, and eggs can help you reduce your intake of saturated fat from meats if you’re worried about that. But the goal is to avoid saturated fats from processed foods.
A note about eggs:
Yes, they do contain cholesterol and saturated fats but they contain a lot of other nutrients that are great for you such as lutein. Lutein is sometimes called the eye vitamin because it helps prevent some of the more prevalent eye diseases like cataracts.
And lutein is best absorbed in the presence of fats and is contained within the fat-rich egg yolk. So include eggs as part of your diet except your doctor instructs you otherwise.
Cut out the trans fat in your diet
With respect to trans fats, reading nutrition labels and ingredient lists will help you avoid these dietary culprits. When it comes to heart disease and cholesterol, avoiding trans fats is the number one thing you can start doing today to make an impact on your health.
To know if a food contains trans fat, read the ingredient list first. If the list of ingredients says the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” before any oil or anywhere on the list, you should avoid it because it has trans fat in it. This will rule out some margarines, but you’re better off having just a little calorie and saturated fat laden butter than having the trans fat-filled margarine.
Some countries have regulations that require that trans fat be reported on the nutrition label like the picture above. But for places like Nigeria, you can’t rely on the fact that this regulation. So when in doubt read the ingredients list.
Take action to help you eat fat and still lose weight
Take some time this week to look at the foods that you eat the most often and answer these questions:
- What can you do to eat unsaturated fats in moderate amounts?
- What can you do to cut down on processed saturated fats?
- What changes can you make to cut out trans fats?
After answering these questions make a concrete action plan to put your answers into action. Remember knowledge without action will get you nowhere…
P.S: If you have any special dietary conditions that are being monitored by your doctor, run the changes you decide upon by him or her before implementing them
(1) Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating by Walter C. Willet, M.D., Dr. P.H.