Fat in the diet has intrigued scientists, nutritionists, and medical practitioners for a long time. At one time in the American diet, fat was considered vital. In the later twentieth century, fat and the connection to heart disease became known, and low-fat diets became a new way of living. In the 1980’s people feared fat and quickly removed it from their daily diet. It was all the rage to eat nonfat foods and drink soft drinks containing artificial sweeteners. As the years have passed, we have a greater understanding and respect for fat in our diet. We also understand the benefits of appropriate fat intake in relation to weight loss, heart disease, and diabetes.
A fat is a fat, right?
To understand the advantages and disadvantages of a high-fat diet, fat must be understood. We can divide fats into three different categories- trans fats, unsaturated fats and saturated fats. Trans fats are formed when the natural chemical structure is altered through a process called hydrogenation. This process is very beneficial to food manufacturers yet quite unhealthy to the public. Health professionals tend to agree that trans fats have no health benefits and should be eliminated from the diet.
We find unsaturated fats in foods such as olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds, and salmon. There are considered the healthiest form of fats. This category can be broken down further into poly-unsaturated fats or monounsaturated fats. This distinction is based upon the number of double bonds in its chemical structure. Poly-unsaturated fats have more double bonds than mono-unsaturated fats. The superstar Omega 3’s fall into this category of fats. Such benefits provided include a reduction of cardiovascular disease, anti-inflammatory properties, and improved brain function.
The fat causing debate is saturated fats. These are found in animal fats and are typically solid at room temperature, such as butter. Initially, saturated fats were considered the main culprit of heart disease and weight gain. Foods containing saturated fats were off limits to dieters because it was believed that this would hinder weight loss. Studies are demonstrating that saturated fats are more complex than originally thought. It appears that when someone reduces their saturated fat intake and replaces it with carbohydrates, particularly simple sugars, the risk of heart disease increases and weight loss is hampered1. Some countries around the world are trying to fight obesity, have even lifted their restrictions regarding saturated fats due to this updated research1.
Why high-fat diets work
High-fat diets are also not all the same. Some diets may advocate higher intakes of saturated fats. The original ketogenic diet was such a diet. Ketogenic diets are quite popular today regarding weight loss but did not begin that way. They were developed in the 1920’s to help epilepsy patients experience less seizure activity. Diets high in creams and certain oils and low in carbohydrates were provided to patients to reduce seizures. The ketogenic diet allows the body to produce ketones which aid in the use of fat for energy. Current studies are still being conducted on the exact mechanisms of the ketones, even after decades of success in epilepsy patients using this diet, but the success of this diet is well documented2.
Today the ketogenic diet is not only used in the treatment of epilepsy but has proven to aid in weight loss. When used for this purpose, a variety of fats are encouraged. The same process of using ketones to burn fat as an energy source is used by many people desiring weight loss. This method of weight loss is proven to be greater and longer lasting when compared to the traditional weight loss methods of low-fat diets or calorie-restricted diets according to the British Journal of Nutrition3. Other benefits of this diet are a decrease in appetite due to a natural suppressing of the appetite. It is also thought that this method of weight loss does not slow the metabolism as other methods may4.
Beyond Weight Loss
Not only does this dietary plan promote weight loss but scientists are discovering health benefits to two of the major chronic conditions in the US- heart disease and diabetes.
Practitioners are now using this diet with success in the treatment of type 2 diabetes. When the body is deprived of large amounts of carbohydrates, the high amount of insulin secreted is no longer needed thus insulin medication, and other diabetic medications may be reduced. Patients using the ketogenic diet are decreasing their hemoglobin A1C levels and reducing medication use5. Similar results have been seen in people with insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome6.
Previously, concerns have risen due to the high fat intake in this type of diet and the association with greater risk for cardiovascular disease. Current studies have led to the contrary. Research shows a decrease in triglyceride levels, which lowers the risk of heart disease. Total cholesterol levels have decreased as well as an increase in the ‘good’ cholesterol, the HDLs. This is credited to the fact that higher levels of insulin are no longer required6.
Current research is also demonstrating favorable results regarding the reduction of risk or possible treatments for neurological disease, cancer, and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). Further research must be performed before definitive answers are determined in these areas.
So, you want to try this type of diet?
Many people want to lose weight and want it to stay off. So, is a high-fat diet for you? As with every diet, you should check with your medical practitioner before starting. If you are a person with diabetes, this suggestion is intensified to a requirement. Many people using a ketogenic diet only consume 50 grams of carbohydrates per day. Type 2 diabetic patients must review this with a professional regarding medication regulation. A trained professional should regulate this diet to ensure proper vitamin and mineral levels are consumed as well as adequate protein. A trained medical professional can direct you to the proper choice of carbohydrates within the 50 grams per day limit.
Fat in the diet still intrigues scientists, nutritionists, and medical practitioners as we are gaining a greater understanding. Higher fat intake may not be as scary as once thought if regulated by a professional. As we understand the benefits to appropriate fat intake in relation to weight loss, heart disease, and diabetes, we gain greater respect and possible treatment options and preventions to some of the major chronic conditions in the United States.