The war against dietary fat (AKA the fat in our food) was declared nearly a century ago when the American Heart Association published findings of a suspected association between dietary fat and heart disease. Since then, we’ve seen an ever-changing story urging consumers to either “limit” fat or on the flip side, go keto. A quick tip: I do not recommend the keto diet for dancers and here’s why.
Now, I’m not diving into the stats here because that only reinforces weight stigma and can also be triggering for those struggling with disordered eating or eating disorders. Instead of promoting positive health behaviors, associations between food and disease have only led to a landscape of food guilt, stress, and anxiety. And we know that weight cycling (a product of yo-yo dieting) is an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Here’s some more proof for your evidence library. And if that’s not enough, yo-yo dieting also lessens bone density
To help you unravel some of the confusion around dietary fat, this article will dive into the questionable conclusions on fat and how you can diminish the fear around the macronutrient. We’ll also chat about the limitations in nutrition research and why the risks associated with fearing foods might just outweigh the risks of spreading butter on your toast. Trigger warning: this article will also chat about using gentle nutrition to support heart health. If you’re currently struggling with disordered eating, in recovery from an eating disorder, or have a tendency to want to “perfect” your diet, it’s encouraged that you work with a licensed professional such as a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist before implementing the tenth principle of Gentle Nutrition.
Let’s start with the research
Most food- and diet-related research is observational. The goal of observational research is to identify patterns in behavior (such as eating foods high in fat) and how it potentially links to various health outcomes (like the development of heart disease). There are 3 major limitations with observational research:
The first is time. For practical reasons, an observational period is usually short: from a couple of weeks to a few years. The second limitation is relying on study participants to report their food intake. Can you remember what you ate on a Tuesday 3 months ago? The third and most problematic limitation is the potential for confounding factors. Confounding factors include anything that could impact what is observed. Examples include alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking, both of which can impact a study’s results. And while researchers often use statistical methods to try to control for these confounding factors (for example, controlling for the participants who smoke versus those who do not smoke), it’s impossible to control for everything. Other confounding variables that can have a huge impact on health outcomes include socioeconomic status, race, and degree of disordered eating.
Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs) are another popular research method used in nutrition science. Unlike observational studies, RCTs are considered the “gold standard” of scientific research because of their ability to draw conclusions based on direct interventions. In RCTs, participants are randomly placed into different groups. One group receives the hypothesized treatment (such as a diet low in fat) and the other receives some kind of control intervention (such as a placebo or, for the sake of our example, a diet high in fat). The problem with RCTs is that they’re too expensive and impractical to conduct long-term (I mean, how can we expect study participants to fully follow the rules when we know that success rates with dieting are insanely low).
Systematic reviews and meta-analyses, in my opinion, provide a helpful way to draw associations in research. These studies examine larger bodies of evidence in comparison to only looking at one study. Interestingly, a 2018 review on nutrition and cardiovascular health concluded, “it is necessary to conduct more interventional studies with a higher number of cases and longer follow up. To date, a lot of results obtained have produced few conclusions and sometimes, even contradictions.”
Now, I don’t want to discredit the fact that good nutrition can play a role in positive health outcomes. And while a large body of research continues to address the potential associations between diet and heart health, we need to remember that association doesn’t equate to causation. Any manipulation of the macronutrients is likely to result in some form of dieting/restriction or disordered eating. We cannot ignore the negative health outcomes of internalized weight stigma and weight cycling. And emerging research indicates that a HAES (Health At Every Size) approach (in comparison to a weight-centric intervention) is “associated with statistically and clinically relevant improvements in physiological measures (e.g. blood pressure, blood lipids), health behaviors (e.g. physical activity, eating disorder pathology) and psychosocial outcomes (e.g, mood, self-esteem, body image).”
Okay, so what’s so great about fat?
Our body needs fat for numerous metabolic functions. Fat is a source of energy, it protects our organs and helps to keep us warm. Fat is essential for the absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K. It’s also a major player in the production of hormones! Without adequate fat stores on our body, we’ll risk hormonal deficiencies and a syndrome known as Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (read about it here).
But I thought butter was “bad”
Diet culture has done a FAB job at labeling what’s “bad” and “good” for health. But remember: when learning how to fuel the body, the goal is to build sustainable habits without obsessing over every gram and every ounce of food (more on this here).
Now, different fats have different chemical properties that affect the body in a variety of ways. The two major fats found in our food supply include unsaturated fats (monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated ”omega-3″ and “omega-6” fats) and saturated fats.
Saturated fat is found primarily in animal products like beef, pork, and full-fat dairy (milk, butter, cream, and cheese). It’s also the main type of fat in coconut oil. Unsaturated fats are found in most plant foods like avocados, oils (olive and canola), nuts, and seeds. Fatty fish and grass-fed beef are also (pricier) sources. We can further decipher between unsaturated “omega-3” fatty acids (such as ALA, DHA, and EPA) from unsaturated “omega-6” fatty acids. Since our body cannot make these fatty acids on its own, it’s essential to obtain them from food.
Omega-3 fats have been shown to possess anti-inflammatory properties, which could benefit muscular recovery. In comparison, omega-6 fats are less anti-inflammatory, but when compared to a diet high in saturated fat, the consumption of omega-6 fats promotes positive outcomes. Some feel that the Western diet contains too few omega-3 fatty acids and too many omega-6 fatty acids (particularly linolenic acid, which is found in soybean, safflower, and corn oils), but this research is pretty old… take it with a grain of salt. Because omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids compete with each other for certain enzymes needed in their metabolism, the concern is that too many omega-6 fatty acids in the diet may interfere with the body’s conversion of ALA into DHA (an important nutrient for brain health).
The goal isn’t to avoid any one type of fat. Rather, it’s to try choosing sources of unsaturated fats when it’s practical, feasible, and if you enjoy those foods. Flax, chia, nuts (especially walnuts), green leafy veggies, and fortified eggs are higher in those anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats and tend to be more budget-friendly when compared to fatty fish and grass-fed meat.
So, I shouldn’t fear fat?
Nope. As I mentioned, fat plays a huge role in our health. All dietary fats promote satisfaction (AKA the fourth macronutrient of our balanced plate). But it can be easy to hyper-focus on the “heart-healthy” or anti-inflammatory fats. Instead, utilize methods of gentle nutrition to make food choices that honor both your physical health and emotional well-being (read more here).
Popular heart-healthy diets, like the Mediterranean Diet, are less offensive than most other restrictive diets. But, the mainstream often translates this way of eating into the guise of “eat less” and “everything in moderation.” This narrow-minded trajectory also ignores the vast cultural and socioeconomic differences among our population, making it impractical and inaccessible to those navigating constraints like time and money. Plus, if you have a history of restrictive eating (and let’s be honest, who doesn’t in our diet-ridden culture), then you’ll want to steer clear of labeling diet rules.
To gain the benefits of this macronutrient on your balanced plate and boost your intake of omega-3s in a less-obsessive way, consider the following tips:
- If economically feasible (and if you enjoy it), consider a fatty fish like Albacore tuna (my favorite and most convenient option!) or salmon a couple times a week.
- Add a handful of nuts of pepitas to your trail mix.
- Swap your mom’s cooking spray with butter for a more satisying meal experience.
- Pair your chips with some homemade guacamole.
- Cook veggies in oil and top salads with dressing.
Macronutrient research with help from student Caitlin Alfano. Expert verified, edited, and reviewed by Rachel Fine.