You're trying to drop a few pounds, so you naturally skimp on fat and try to focus on lean eating. But taking such measures could actually be counterproductive, causing you to gain weight instead of losing it. The best diet for weight loss--and overall health--includes a balanced assortment of nutrients, and doesn't cut or drastically reduce fats, proteins or carbohydrates.
Fat in the American Diet
According to Harvard School of Public Health, Americans are collectively eating less fat now than in earlier decades. In the '60s, about 45 percent of our calories came from fat sources; these days, we get just 33 percent of our calories from fat. But in the days of higher fat consumption, only 13 percent of adults were obese--today, that number has nearly tripled. Diabetes is also about 10 times more prevalent now.
How Fat Helps Weight
Put simply, fat is satisfying. When we eat foods that contain oils and other fatty substances, food stays in our stomachs longer for lasting satiety. When we skip fat, we may never feel fully sated after meals, and are more likely to become hungry again soon after eating. We may wind up eating more calories to compensate for the empty feeling in our guts.
What's more, many low-fat and fat-free products are highly processed and contain added sugars to make up for the lost flavor. Just because a food has little fat does not mean that it's light in calories, and we may be tricked into eating more of these fat-free junk foods in the belief that they aren't fattening.
Not all fats are created equal. Trans fats, for example, are linked to visceral belly fat--the kind that sits beneath abdominal muscles and contributes to diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. Trans fat is primarily found in margarines, snack foods, baked goods and meats. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is trans fat in disguise, so check food labels for both terms. Cholesterol and saturated fat, usually found in animal products such as beef and butter, are also bad news, contributing to dangerous cholesterol levels in the blood.
The "good" fats are polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, which come from plant foods such as nuts, seeds, avocados and vegetable oils. These fats help maintain normal cholesterol levels and are linked to a reduced risk of heart disease. Omega-3 fatty acids, which are polyunsaturated "superfats" found in salmon and walnuts, have particularly heart-healthy properties.
While fats can aid your weight-loss plan, moderation is still key. At nine calories per gram, fat has more than double the energy of carbohydrates and protein, which contain just four calories per gram. Since weight loss ultimately boils down to calories in versus calories out, eating too many fatty foods can spell diet disaster.
The smart way to lose weight is to pay attention to calories while eating whole, natural foods. Most women lose weight on about 1,500 calories per day, while men will lose weight eating about 2,000 calories per day--and you probably won't feel hungry with those numbers. Get your fats from plant sources, and cut out saturated and trans fats as much as possible. Just don't feel guilty about using a splash of olive oil in your stir-fry or snacking on a handful of almonds.
Nina Kate is a certified fitness nutrition specialist through the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). She also studied journalism at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and has contributed to numerous major publications as a freelance writer. Nina thrives on sharing nutrition and fitness knowledge to help readers lead healthy, active lives. Visit her wellness blog at BodyFlourish.com.