We’ve been asked this question so many times: Does fat make you fat?
The one-word answer is “no.”
So why do so many people avoid fat or believe it causes weight gain? The answer is likely because the diet industry went through a low-fat craze in the ‘90s. And it doesn’t help that body fat and dietary fat share the same name. You are what you eat, right? Wrong in this case!
It also doesn’t help that the word “fat” is sometimes used to describe someone who is overweight.
If you combine all that, it’s easy to see why so many people avoid fat and so many products have the phrases “low in fat!” and “fat-free!” on their labels.
But dietary fat isn’t a problem. It’s one of three important macronutrients. Protein and carbohydrates are the other two. Fat is just a nutrient that supplies energy and it’s a source of “essential fatty acids.” The body can’t make these fatty acids, so we must eat them—and they are indeed essential for health.
Here’s a line from “The Essentials of Essential Fatty Acids,” published in the Journal of Dietary Supplements: “Studies have shown that increasing the intake of certain essential fatty acids, either alone or in combination with other fats and compounds, can increase health, help in treating certain diseases, and even improve body composition, mental and physical performance.”
So some kinds of fats are very good for you. You might have heard of “unsaturated” or “good” fat. These fats can be found in foods like fish, nuts and avocado. You’ll hear about two other kinds of fat: “saturated” and “trans.”
Saturated fats are found primarily in meat, dairy, and some plants. Experts have different opinions on saturated fats and this Healthline.com article has a good overview.
The quick summary: A reasonable amount of saturated fat from high-quality sources likely has a place in an overall healthy diet. Large amounts regularly consumed through high-calorie fast food can create health concerns.
Trans fats—“bad” fats—are primarily found in processed foods and have been linked to heart disease, strokes, and other health problems. They should be avoided.
So if some fats are good and even essential, what actually causes people to gain body fat?
More and more, researchers are pointing to refined carbohydrates and sugar. The interesting part is that some foods are packed with sugar and fat and they’re delicious. That makes it very easy to consume too much—and overconsumption of fat adds a lot of calories to your diet. Again, it’s not necessarily the fat itself that’s bad, just the amount.
Sugar, on the other hand, has fewer calories per gram, but it wreaks havoc on hormones like insulin. It gets complicated here, so we’ll just mention that high levels of added sugar are not good for health. (If you want, you can read more about carbs and blood sugar here.)
The takeaway: Body fat is not directly produced by eating dietary fat. Healthy fats are definitely part of a solid nutrition plan. Weight gain is more closely tied to a number of factors including food quantity, food quality, activity levels, and other factors.
So some almonds or slices of avocado can definitely be included in your plan. Those foods will give you energy and fuel your workouts. Huge bags of chips, lots of chocolate bars and double-cheeseburgers at every meal? That plan won’t help you achieve your fitness and health goals.
The best news: You don’t have to figure all this out. We have qualified experts who can help you develop the healthy eating habits that will help you reach your goals.
To talk to a coach about nutrition, click here.