Long before Paleo, Keto, or low-carb diets were a thing, fat was weight-loss enemy number one. Today, it’s making a comeback…and it should. Here’s why having fat in your eating plan is important, despite its high SmartPoints value.
Fat is your friend
Mother Nature created fat for a reason. On the most basic level it provides a long-term energy source, but that’s just the beginning. “Fat is essential, meaning you can’t survive without it,” says Alissa Rumsey, RD, owner of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness. “It’s the only nutrient capable of delivering fat-soluble nutrients to our cells, so we need it to absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K as well as antioxidants like lycopene and beta-carotene.” Fat also provides insulation to prevent you from freezing when it’s cold out, cushions your organs to protect them from injury, is part of hormones, and is part of the membranes that surround every cell in your body.
Why eat fat
This nutrient has another unique quality: It makes food taste better. “Fat provides tenderizing and lubricating properties, which enhance foods’ flavor and aroma as well as impart a velvety satiating texture,” says Patricia Bannan, RDN, author of Eat Right When Time Is Tight. It’s the secret ingredient that makes cheese deliciously creamy and hummus smooth and spreadable.
Indulging a little fat might even help you eat less. Here’s why: As fat travels through the gut, it stimulates the release of a hormone called cholecystokinin that sends fullness signals to your brain. However, not all fats affect appetite in the same way. Polyunsaturated fat — from foods like walnuts, corn oil, and salmon — may have an impact on satiety hormones, according to a 2015 study in the journal Obesity. When volunteers followed a diet that was rich in polyunsaturated fat, they secreted more of an appetite-suppressing hormone, called PYY, than people whose diet was heavier in monounsaturated and saturated fats.
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One size doesn’t fit all
Since the 1970s, the fat in our diets has dropped from 37 to 34 percent of calories, yet we weigh more than ever. As we’ve trimmed fat, we’ve bulked up on something else, namely carbs. And many experts think an increase in carbohydrates in the form of added sugar may be even more problematic than the fat we were initially trying to curtail. Truth is, even though some people find they’re simply not satisfied without a little fat on their plates, others do just fine eating less of it provided they replace it with filling, whole, high-fiber foods, says Rumsey.
What doesn’t work? Extreme fat restriction. “Diets that eliminate or highly limit a specific nutrient are rarely successful,” says Bannan. “Whether it’s protein, carbohydrates, or fat, when you don’t eat enough of any of these you could end up feeling hungry and unsatisfied.”
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The balancing act
Adding more fat to your meals isn’t necessarily better. Consider that many fat-filled foods, like coconut custard pie, fried chicken, and cheese-covered French fries, can be hard to resist. The answer? Look for other, perhaps surprising foods that have fat in them, and add those to your repertoire so that you work a little bit of fat into every meal. Go ahead and sprinkle a couple of tablespoons of sunflower seeds on your cereal, tuck a few slices of avocado into a sandwich, or snack on a small handful of nuts. Although they can be higher in SmartPoints and calories, you might find that they curb hunger and help you enjoy food a whole lot more in the process.
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