Here’s what we know about picking the “right” diet.
First, there was the Atkins diet, then the South Beach Diet came along, followed by the Mediterranean diet, and the ketogenic diet.
It seems like every day a new diet explodes onto the health and wellness scene, and health experts claim it’s the healthiest diet yet.
All the buzz likely has you wondering what’s best for your health: a low-fat / high-carb diet or a high-fat / low-carb diet? Or, maybe, it all comes down to the type of fat you’re eating.
These are the questions researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Boston Children’s Hospital addressed in a paper featured on the cover of Science magazine’s special issue on nutrition.
While the nutrition scientists had diverse backgrounds and perspectives, the one thing they all agreed upon was this: There is no one diet that’s best for everyone.
A well-rounded diet that’s generally low in sugar and refined grains and rich in healthy fats will do the trick for most people looking to maintain a healthy weight and a low chronic disease risk, the research team found.
What is a healthy fat?
One of the biggest topics the researchers tackled was the importance of the type and amount of fats people should be eating.
There are all kinds of fats. Unsaturated fats are the good fats, of which there are two kinds: monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) — found in nuts, avocado, and vegetable oils — and polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) — located in seafood and some vegetable oils.
Unsaturated fats are thought to promote lean tissue in healthy individuals, improve blood cholesterol levels, and lower your risk of heart disease.
Then, there are the not-so-good fats — the saturated fats. These are predominantly found in animal products like milk, cheese, and meat, along with tropical oils, butter, and margarine.
Research has shown that saturated fats can increase hepatic and visceral fat storage and are positively associated with weight gain.
Lastly, trans fats refer to the hydrogenated fats in certain processed foods: chips, crackers, cookies, and salad dressings.
Trans fats have no known health benefits and have no safe levels of consumption, according to Harvard Medical School. They’ve been deemed so unhealthy, in fact, that earlier this year the United States put a ban on artificial trans fats.
“Trans fats are unhealthy because they are proven to increase the risk of coronary artery disease, raise the LDL (the bad cholesterol), lower HDL (the good cholesterol), and raise triglycerides levels,” Beth Warren, a registered dietitian nutritionist with Beth Warren Nutrition and author of Secrets of a Kosher Girl, said.
Our bodies naturally make saturated fats, which are solid at room temperature, Warren added, but we should all still moderate how much more we consume through food.
Fat fuels our bodies
Over the years, fat has gotten a bad rap thanks to a number of diet fads and crazes. As a result, many people now fear fat and try to avoid it all together.
But the truth of the matter is that we need fat to survive. Fat is a major source of energy.
“Fat is essential to give your body energy and to support cell growth. Fat protects our organs and helps keep us warm. Fats also help the body absorb many nutrients and produce important hormones,” Warren said.
Furthermore, eating healthy fats can also improve your lipid profile and help you burn calories more efficiently in an otherwise calorie-controlled diet, Warren explained.
How much fat should we be eating?
The dietary reference intake (DRI) currently states that approximately 20 to 35 percent of total calories should come from healthy fats.
This amount should fluctuate based on your medical history and specific nutrition needs.
In general, it’s best to replace saturated fats — from red meats and dairy — with unsaturated fats, and avoid trans fats altogether. Keep in mind though, that all fats — healthy fats included — tend to be high in calories, so try not to overdo it.
Fats should ideally come from unsaturated sources: nuts, seeds, oils, avocados, and hummus.
“Omega-3 PUFAs (also known as alpha-linolenic acid) are essential to health and found in flaxseeds, wild fish, and canola oil. Why I love these? Aside from their anti-inflammatory properties, omega-3’s are metabolized into [the fatty acids] ‘EPA’ & ‘DHA,’ which are power nutrients for brain health,” Rachel Fine, a registered dietitian nutritionist with To The Pointe Nutrition, said.
“Omega-9 MUFAs (also known as oleic acid) protect our hearts and are abundant in olive oil, avocados [and] avocado oil, sunflower seed butters, almonds, peanuts, and walnuts,” Fine noted.
A few small changes to your diet can go
a long way
a long way
Remember, we all need fat, so instead of avoiding it, focus on how you can improve the quality of the fat you eat.
Try swapping out sour cream and replacing it with full-fat Greek yogurt in creamier dishes to reduce the saturated fat, Fine recommended.
If you cook or bake a lot with oils, Fine suggests using avocado oils instead of butter or lard to increase the amount of monounsaturated fats in the meal.
Lastly, opt for fish — like salmon or mackerel — instead of meat a couple times a week to load up on those omega-3 fatty acids.
The bottom line
What the nutrition scientists with diverse backgrounds all agreed upon was the fact that there is no one diet that’s best for everyone.
Every body works differently. Some of us look and feel better with certain macronutrient breakdowns versus others.
There’s no one-size-fits-all diet out there. Rather, it’s best to work with a nutritionist or dietitian who can help determine what your specific needs are so your body can be at its healthiest.