Low fat vs full fat: what the heck is the difference?
For decades, we’ve been given the message that “no fat,” “low fat” and “diet” food products are step one for health and weight loss.
At the same time, the high-fat, low-carb ketogenic diet has become a worldwide craze, and Americans – mirroring a trend in other Western countries – are exceeding the recommended guidelines for fat in their standard diets. Also in 2019, the Australian Heart Foundation revised its guidelines for a heart-healthy diet, putting full-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese back on the menu.
Clearly, there is a lot of confusion and many misconceptions out there when it comes to the role fats play in a healthy, balanced diet. To help you wrap your head around the conundrum – no fat, low fat, full fat or too fat? – we turned to Advanced Sports Dietitian Lisa Middleton.
1. Why do I need fat?
A balanced diet includes a good balance of fats. Just think of all the healthy, high-calorie foods that have fats: nuts and seeds, avocado, eggs and olive oil. These healthy fats help you to feel full for longer, and as Lisa points out, they also have other positive health benefits.
“Fats form the membranes of cells in our body. They also contain vitamins and antioxidants and help your body absorb nutrients from other foods (eg. an olive oil dressing on your salad will help your body absorb the goodness in those greens.) “Certain fatty acids also have anti-inflammatory effects, can improve brain health and decrease your risk of heart disease.”
2. But doesn’t eating fat make me fat?
Yes, eating TOO MUCH fat will lead to body-fat gains, but so will eating too much of basically anything. “Overall calories make more difference to weight gain than fat,” says Lisa.
For a while, the hyped-up diet culture went wild with the idea that very low-fat diets (and cleverly marketed 'light' food products) were necessary to lose weight effectively. The idea was that to be 'fat-free', you had to eat 'fat-free' foods – and THAT'S an unhealthy approach.
Now we understand more about the role of fat in our diets and overall health. Well-timed calorie-dense foods and healthy fats from a range of sources are an important part of Centr’s balanced workout meal plan, even for weight loss.
Want a taste of the action? Try our Banana & Peanut Butter Smoothie – with fats from peanut butter and dairy, it’s an ideal pre-workout meal that will satiate your hunger. You can sub out the cottage cheese for Greek yogurt. A strategic smoothie 60 minutes before you jump into that strenuous physical activity and you’ll have the fuel you need to smash a workout.
If you’re looking to build muscle, you can wave watery protein shakes goodbye, because our healthy smoothie recipes also include snack-sized protein powerhouses for muscle recovery (they’re the perfect post-workout meal).
Our Banana & Peanut Butter Smoothie is perfect for silencing those pre-workout hunger pangs.
3. Is it better to buy “full fat” products?
Because “diet” products often have additives (such as added sugar) it’s best to go for food in its natural state – for instance, full-fat natural (unflavored) yogurt or full-fat coconut milk, which you’ll find in Centr recipes.
'Coconut milk,' you say, 'but isn't that saturated fat?' Yes, but as Lisa says, this isn't anything to worry about in fitness meal plans like ours.
“This is fine because it’s just a small part of a mix of fats in your diet,” says Lisa. “And naturally-occurring saturated fats in meat are certainly better than getting those saturated fats from processed foods with sugar, additives and minimal nutrition.”
For a healthy recipe with saturated fats, try our Chicken Korma with Broccolini. It has naturally-occurring saturated fats from chicken thighs (think outside the basic chicken breast, people) and coconut milk, balanced with other nutrient-rich whole foods.
4. Does that mean “low fat” is bad for me?
Not necessarily. Low-fat dairy (e.g. milk and yogurt) may be needed if you have pre-existing health concerns or you need to balance your calorie intake. Fat is calorie-dense, which is why cutting it out is often seen as an easy way of creating a calorie deficit – but individual activity level also comes into play here, and everyone is different.
Low-fat options can be part of a balanced whole foods diet – just be sure to choose unflavored and unsweetened rather than processed options.
For example, take a look at what’s in the tub when you consume these different types of yogurt:
5. So it’s a fat free-for-all?
Cool your jets! Some fats can have worse health effects than others, and the amounts you eat should be kept to a healthy minimum. This is especially important if you’re putting together a keto diet menu or a similar high-fat, low-carb diet: you can’t just live on endless bacon and coconut oil (and you probably won’t find a keto meal plan that would recommend this!)
Lisa’s facts will help you get the fats straight.
Found in: Margarine, processed foods and many fried fast foods.
Verdict: Limit your intake due to the negative impact on cholesterol and inflammation.
Found in: Mostly animal-derived food sources, but also found in coconut and palm oil (that one is often used in processed snack foods).
Verdict: Historically the bad guy of fats, due to its reputation for increasing LDL cholesterol. But not all saturated fats are the same, and guidelines for intake have softened in recent years.
Found in: Oils (particularly olive, canola and peanut), avocado, nuts, lean red meat, chicken, eggs and fish.
Verdict: Has been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol.
Polyunsaturated Fat: omega-3 and omega-6
Omega-3 found in: seafood, canola, linseed/flaxseed, chia, and walnuts.
Omega-6 found in: vegetable oils, grains, nuts, seeds, and wheat germ.
Verdict: Often considered good fats, however, the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 is essential for optimal health. Most of us need to increase omega-3 intake (seafood sources are the most readily utilized by the body) and reduce omega-6 intake.
The fat wrap
So what does all of this mean for your daily nutrition and meal plan?
“Make increasing your omega-3 intake and avoiding trans fats your priority No.1,” says Lisa.
For a healthy, balanced and nutrient-dense diet, Lisa recommends following these guidelines:
Eat fish (particularly oily/tinned) 3-4 times per week
Include natural sources of plant-based fats, e.g. nuts, seeds, avocado
Include monounsaturated fats, e.g. extra virgin olive oil
Reduce intake of saturated fats from processed foods
Reduce intake of hydrogenated vegetable oils, e.g. margarine and deep-fried foods
Include dairy and eggs
Include a variety of different fats in your diet for enjoyment, taste, and health.
Get your healthy balance off to a swimming start with our Salmon Frittata with Silverbeet. This recipe includes cheese, salmon, and eggs for good sources of fat and protein, balanced with leafy green vegetables for fiber.
Of course, nutrition is unique to every person. If you're worried about fats or have a family history of heart disease or other medical conditions, it's a good idea to talk to a healthcare professional or sports dietitian before starting a new eating plan.
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