We have been trained to look for fat content as the main marker of whether food is junk or good for you. It’s on the very top of the nutrition panel in bold. But are all fats created equally? They are an essential nutrient, so they must play some role in our diets. We turned it over to our resident nutrition nerd Hannah Meier, RD, to break it down for us, as well as some other often misunderstood nutrition topics in a new series of posts.
What Are the Health Benefits of Fats?
As one of the main energy-providing components of food, fat is essential to include in a balanced diet. Not only does it provide more than twice the energy per gram of protein and carbohydrates, fat is necessary for absorption of vitamins A, D, E and K, slows down digestion (keeping hunger in check), and serves as the backbone of the cellular lining of all body tissues. We absolutely need fat in our diet to be our healthiest selves.
You may have heard whispers of a change or two coming soon to the Nutrition Facts Panel on food packages across grocery store shelves, or read sensational headlines in the news: “death to sugar and long live healthy fats!” You may have even seen a product or two with the new label on its package.
In this series, we will explore the three major changes coming to the nutrition facts panel: what they mean for your diet, why they’re needed, and how you can use them identify products on the shelf you feel good about eating. At 88 Acres, we believe in satisfying nutrition from real, whole foods. That leads to eating a balanced diet complete with protein, fiber, fats and a little bit of sugar.
Fats Then and Now: Total Fat vs. Fat Type
Ahh, fats. We love them and we hate them. The original Nutrition Facts Panel emphasized Calories from Fat and Total Fat, because at the time it was assumed that foods high in fat increased the risk of heart disease. 25 years later, there is more evidence to suggest that we should focus on the type of fat rather than the total fat when making judgments about a food’s health virtues. Read: avocados, salmon or full-fat yogurt, not potato chips and double fudge ice cream.
Trans fat, for example, is a type of fat that is commercially produced by hydrogenating oil, and is used to give products a long shelf-life. Since we now know that consuming trans fat raises markers in the blood that put consumers at a higher risk for disease, food companies are required to list the amount of trans fat in one serving of their products. Because of this, it has been increasingly phased out of the food supply. You can trust that 88 Acres will never use hydrogenated oils in our products.
On the flip side, unsaturated fats, like those in oils, nuts, seeds and fatty fish, have consistently been associated with a longer life and positive health outcomes such as reduced blood pressure, lower cholesterol and improved insulin sensitivity, especially when you eat them instead of other types of fat.
88 Acres foods all use seeds which provide you with a nutritious dose of unsaturated fats in every bite. One handful (about one ounce) of sunflower or pumpkin seeds provides about 10 grams of healthful unsaturated fat in a satisfying package. Flax seeds, a feature component of the 88 Acres craft seed blend, are a unique source of omega-3 fats, an essential fat (meaning we must get it from food) that provides a boost of inflammation-fighting benefits as well.
Saturated Fats: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Saturated fats have long been maligned by public health and prevention organizations for their apparent association with increased risk of heart attacks and stroke. But, over time, we’ve learned that not all saturated fat behaves the same way in our bodies.
Animal Fats & Palm Oil - So far, we know that animal fats like bacon fat, as well as palm oil (often found in nut butters, chocolate and vegan butters), seem to raise cholesterol the most. Dairy fats such as whole milk and butter are saturated, but don’t appear to have the same consistent negative effect on disease outcomes.
Coconut Oil - Coconut oil is more saturated than lard, but may have a unique role as a dietary fat. Since it is full of shorter fats called Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs for short), scientists are working to understand whether the fat is treated differently than other, longer-chain fats like animal fats in the body. So far, the answer is not clear. While it is full of MCTs, it also contains other saturated fats that do raise cholesterol. According to the evidence, it’s probably best to consume coconut oil moderately, if you enjoy the taste or if you follow a vegan diet. One thing about coconut oil that cannot be argued: it serves as a wonderful moisturizer when applied to the skin.
Seeds & Seed Oil - You’ll notice that 88 Acres products are not low in fat. That’s because we focus on unsaturated fats from seeds and sunflower oil. Good news, because these are the kind that continue to show positive health effects in those who consume them regularly. The FDA is keeping pace with the evidence and will no longer require that Calories from Fat be listed on the Nutrition Facts Panel, since this is a misleading value that could make it seem like less fat, even the good, unsaturated kind, is better.
The Take Home MessageAll fats are not inherently bad. Fats are essential for absorbing vitamins A, D, E and K. When evaluating a food, focus on the type of fat, not the calories. Plant-based fats from seeds can help us feel satisfied and full, and also may reduce the risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic health conditions.
Stay tuned for the next part in our series where we discuss sugar’s role in the diet.
Contributed by Hannah Meier, 88 Acres Nutritionist and a registered dietitian and food advocate based in Boston, Massachusetts. She completed her combined Bachelor’s in Dietetics and Psychology at the University of Wisconsin - Madison in 2014 and moved to Massachusetts shortly after to complete her dietetic internship at Massachusetts General Hospital. She is now pursuing her Master’s in Nutrition Communication and Behavior Change at Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. She believes nutrition can and should be accessible, easy, fun, and flexible. An avid runner and budding yogi, she practices living life in balance, using food as fuel and helping others find a happy relationship with food and exercise. Her favorite 88 Acres product is a schmear of pumpkin seed butter spread on a slice of sprouted grain toast, topped with pomegranate seeds.