When it comes to dietary fats and carbohydrates, the advice has varied greatly — to say the least! Apparently fats are bad, but some are good, and carbs are terrible for you except when they’re not — so how are we supposed to know what’s what?
But the good news is that we do have long-standing wisdom that just about everyone can follow for better health. (Long story short — some carbs and fats are good for you, and we’ll tell you which ones!)
Why We Need Fats In Our Diet
First off, here’s my pitch for why everyone needs some fat in their diets. (Yes, I’m talking to you, low-fat fanatic!) Fats are a high-energy fuel source and a necessary macronutrient for all of us. They satisfy hunger, help sustain energy for longer periods of time and serve as our go-to fuel when exercising. People who remove fat from their meals get very hungry throughout the day. The trick is figuring out the difference between the kinds of fats.
Three Types of Fats, Different Health Effects
Unsaturated fat is typically considered the healthiest of the three types of fats as it provides health benefits such as lowering cholesterol, strengthening the cell membrane, and facilitating storage of vitamins A, D, E, and K. Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature; the best source comes from plants such as avocado oil or olive oil.
Saturated fat has been associated with negative health effects in some people, but it is not the bogeyman sold to us in nutrition years ago. Nevertheless, it is not as helpful to the body as unsaturated fat, as it can elevate LDL cholesterol, accelerate its oxidation and contribute to cell membrane deterioration. Most saturated fats come from animal sources and are solid at room temperature. One plant-based saturated fat is coconut, which has health benefits and is useful in many types of cooking. There’s little reason to avoid all saturated fat, so awareness of your intake for flavor is key to achieving balance in your diet.
Trans fat (aka trans fatty acids) is the fat you want to keep out of your diet. Trans fats are found in many highly processed, industrially produced foods. On a food label, trans fats go by many names including “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated.” Trans fats do occur in nature and in ruminant animals in tiny amounts; but most trans fats have been removed from many processed foods in the U.S. and Canada. However, they remain killers, according to the WHO, in 11 of the top 15 countries with the most heart disease (Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Iran, Mexico, Nepal, Pakistan, Republic of Korea) .
What about Essential Fatty Acids?
Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids, meaning they contain a unique chemical structure. When it comes to your health, EFAs are absolutely essential to a number of functions in the body. They play a crucial role in fetal brain development, provide protective benefits for the heart and nerve tissue as we age, and reduce inflammation. EFAs are found in fish, walnuts and flaxseed among other foods.
And What About Carbs?
Carbohydrates are another essential macronutrient (protein completes the macronutrient group). In the body, carbs are converted into different sugars, making them a necessary fuel source. For example, glycogen is the fuel for muscles to work hard during exercise, and is stored in the liver. Glucose is the fuel source for the brain.
Repeat after me: Your body needs carbs, and they are not the enemy of a healthy diet! But highly refined carbs (anything made with flour or sugar as a top 3 ingredient– most pasta, bread, crackers, chips, sweets) should be thought of as a dessert, not a main course.
Fruits, vegetables, and legumes are sources of carbohydrates that provide necessary vitamins and minerals. Whole grains such as oats, wheat, and barley also contain carbs. The food source of your carbohydrates and how it acts in the body is important. Some carbohydrates, like whole oats, are slow-acting — meaning they don’t rapidly spike blood sugar levels, leading to that ‘crash’ feeling.
What does give you that crash and burn feeling? Carbohydrates from simple sugars, like sucrose, which is found in white table sugar and is added to many packaged foods and baked goods. This is the sugar you want to minimize, if not eliminate from your diet. Whether it’s a blueberry muffin or a candy bar disguised as a protein bar… the villain among carbs is found in packaged and highly processed foods.
Most Valuable Nutrition Tip
Listen up! The most valuable nutrition tip you could follow for any meal is this:
Include a source of healthy fat (avocado or EVOO), a lean protein, sometimes a whole grain carb (quinoa, brown rice, wheat berries), seeds and nuts, and a rainbow of fruits and veggies on your plate.
If you are unsure of how to plan the best diet for you, one that provides all that you need and that you enjoy eating, consider working with someone trained in this area who can help you navigate the nutrition and food journey. One source: Dr. Gabe Mirkin’s excellent series of essays on the details of practical nutrition.