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From the first Dietary Guidelines to the low-fat diets of the '90s, Americans have been told to avoid fat for decades. But since cutting out an essential macronutrient often translates to replacing it with ultra-processed foods, the low-fat fad may not be as healthy as it seems. We talked to our on-staff registered dietitians, Lisa Valente and Victoria Seaver, to get the skinny on fats.
First, if you're concerned eating fat will make you fat, think again! Before fat is stored as fatty tissue on the body, it's used for a variety of physiological processes. From aiding in the absorption of fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) to protecting your organs, fat plays an integral part in keeping your body healthy.
"Fat does more than just provide calories—it also provides vital nutrients, like omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E, that you don't really get from other foods," says Seaver. "When you eat enough fat, you're giving your body the fuel it needs to do basic functions, like repair cells, support hormone production and boost immunity."
When you cut out fat from your diet, you'll have to replace the missing calories with something else—which often turns out to be ultra-processed foods linked to obesity. "Some fat-free foods happen to be very healthy, like fruits and vegetables," says Valente. "But low-fat or fat-free processed foods are often loaded with sugar and actually less healthy than the original version."
Related: Does Eating Fat Make You Fat?
If that's not enough to make you hop on the fat bandwagon, consider this: Consuming fat can actually help boost your health. "In the long run, incorporating plenty of healthy fats (including saturated fats) into your diet means you'll have an easier time maintaining a healthy weight and keeping heart disease, diabetes and cognitive decline at bay," says Seaver.
But just because fat is essential for our bodies to function, it doesn't mean you get a free pass on that family-sized bucket of fried chicken. To prevent health problems associated with the overconsumption of fat—such as heart disease—it's important to keep your saturated fat intake to a minimum of 10 percent of your daily caloric intake.
"Replacing saturated fats (think beef, butter, cheese and palm oil) with unsaturated fats (think nuts, seeds and avocado) can help reduce your risk of heart disease," says Valente. As an added bonus, healthy fats take longer to digest—meaning they will stay in your stomach longer than proteins and carbs—so they'll keep you feeling fuller for longer. Translation: You can say goodbye to midnight snacking (and those pesky 5 pounds).
The Bottom Line
Healthy fats are an integral part of your diet—they help regulate physiological processes, keep you satiated and curb those munchies! And if you're wondering how to incorporate fat into your diet, "The Dietary Guidelines recommend 25-35 percent of your total calories coming from fat, so about one-third of your total calories. Incorporating healthy fats into your diet—think almonds for snack, avocado on toast and using olive oil when you cook—can help you meet that goal," says Valente.
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