We Spoke To A Registered Dietitian & Here's What Canadians Need To Unlearn About Fat In Food
"Fats are important and have essential roles when it comes to our biology and health."
You've probably heard some form of the claim that fat is "bad" for you and that cutting it out of your diet is the "healthiest" way to eat. But you may be surprised to learn that experts, like registered dietitian Doug Cook, don't agree.
In fact, Cook, who has spent 23 years helping Canadians overcome misconceptions about food, says fat has a hugely important role to play in both food and health — and there's really no good reason to avoid it.
From the many health benefits of dietary fat to how Canadians got muddled up about this essential nutrient in the first place, Cook set the record straight in an interview with Narcity — and what he said could change the way you think about fat for good.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
There's no need to be so concerned about fat
"Fat has had its share of negative press over the years and while some of the messaging surrounding dietary fat was well intended, there have been many unintended consequences," Cook told Narcity.
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"A perfect example is the repeated message that all saturated fats are something to avoid, resulting in an unjustified aversion to fat and sources of dietary fat."
In particular, a common misconception is that eating foods that contain saturated fats can increase an individual’s risk of developing heart disease.
"When it comes to saturated fat and heart disease, it's important for people to know they can relax and enjoy many different foods," he said.
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"Eating for long-term health isn't as simple as focusing on one nutrient or food or trying to put a cap or upper limit on their intake. The bulk of the evidence shows that the overall quality of one's diet is what matters most.
"Choosing a variety of nutrient-dense foods with a focus on balance will ensure people get the nutrients they need while not needing to overthink their saturated fat intake."
Your body needs fat to function
As well as being a valuable source of energy, explained Cook, dietary fats perform all sorts of essential roles in the body — right down to your cells.
"Dietary fats [...] carry the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, and fats found in food help to increase the absorption of other compounds such as carotenoids (found in brightly coloured fruits and vegetables as well as egg yolks)."
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Dietary fat is also critical for the brain, which is made up of almost 60% fat and needs fatty acids from food — such as omega-3 — to stay healthy.
Cook went on to say: "Fats found in food can be used by the body as building blocks for other bodily structures such cell membranes, and tissues."
It's easy for most people to get enough dietary fat
"As with any essential nutrient, if we don't have enough fat in our diets, we will develop a fatty acid deficiency which will lead to a host of health problems. This isn't surprising given the diverse roles that dietary fat plays in overall health," Cook told Narcity.
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Since fats help with vitamin absorption, not eating enough fat can contribute to vitamin deficiencies, a weakened immune system, hair loss and dermatitis. The good news is that most people should find it easy to meet their dietary fat needs.
"If someone is eating a variety of nutritious foods, both plant and animal-based, and if they're not actively avoiding dietary fat, they'll be getting the recommended intake of dietary fat," he said.
"Foods that naturally contain fat really don't bother me at all, whether that's dairy foods, well-marbled meats like AAA grade beef, [...] nuts, and seeds, or even fat-rich fruits such as avocado or coconut."
Fats in food have culinary perks too
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On top of all the good fat does for your body, there's the pleasure and satisfaction that comes from cooking and eating foods that contain fat.
"From an eating point of view, fats provide what's called a satisfying mouthfeel; the sensation of a food or beverage in our mouths. Fat provides a rich and creamy mouthfeel," said Cook.
"This is why ice cream gives a better eating experience compared to ice milk or beef with marbling does versus very lean cuts."
There's more to the story than just 'good' or 'bad' fats
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Messages about certain fats being "good" and others being "bad" have circulated for years. But when it comes to this essential nutrient, Cook told Narcity that such an approach isn't appropriate.
"Fats are neutral, they just are," he said. "All fats are important and have essential roles when it comes to our biology and health."
Instead of talking about so-called "good" and "bad" fats, Cook explained that the three main categories of fats — saturated fats, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats (which include omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids) — all have a role to play in health.
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"As with any food or nutrient, the total diet has to be considered," he said. "It's confusing, unhelpful, and reductive to point to a food or type of fat and call it 'good or bad'; context matters."
The fat you eat & the fat in your body are not the same thing
"It's important to distinguish between the fat in the body's fat cells (adipose) and the fat molecules in the food we eat (referred to as lipids)," Cook told Narcity.
"This is an example of the confusion that exists about dietary fat and contributes to some of the negative messaging."
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Cook went on to explain that all food eaten gets digested and broken down, including dietary fat. The parts of the food that provide energy — protein, fat and carbohydrates — can all eventually end up stored if the body doesn't need them right away.
"Excess energy (calorie) intake will be stored as fat," he said. "Thinking that dietary fat is stored directly as body fat has led to a cautionary tale where weight management is concerned."
There's nutritional advice that every Canadian can benefit from
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"Whenever possible, I recommend that we choose minimally-processed foods, both plant and animal-based," Cook told Narcity, adding that eating nutrient-dense foods is the easiest way to get the vitamins and minerals your body needs.
"Traditional foods [from all cultures] that naturally contain fat [...] have been cast in a negative light [...], but many of them offer much more overall nutrition than today's imitation food-like products.
"Embrace more of those foods that have sustained the human race over the millennia."
"When it comes to naturally-occurring dietary fats, fear-not and enjoy, knowing that a little goes a long way to making food enjoyable to eat while keeping you healthy over the long run."
Whatever is on your menu — from a piece of fatty salmon or well-marbled steak to real butter in your mashed potatoes — you can enjoy it all the more, knowing dietary fat is nothing to fear.
The information in this article is not intended and should not be construed as medical advice. Consult your health care provider before making any health care decisions or for guidance about a specific medical condition.