Fat has been demonized by the food industry for years — and today, we finally have a clue why. A pair of papers published in the Journal of the American Medical Association's JAMA Internal Medicine found that the sugar industry had paid for studies that underplayed the connection between sugars and heart disease. Instead, these studies pointed the finger at fat as the main cause of heart disease — leaving out the fact that sugar may be a major culprit, too.
Health experts and nutritionists have been trying to reverse fat's bad reputation for years. Not all fats are bad, and there are healthy fats that are essential to a balanced diet.
In fact, the American Heart Association recommends healthy Americans, over age 2, eat between 25 and 35 percent of your total daily calories as fats from healthy sources like nuts, fish and oils.
Here are 11 reasons to (yes!) love, celebrate and actually eat dietary fat.
1. They keep you fuller, for a longer period of time.
Studies have found that healthy unsaturated fats (like monounsaturated or polyunsaturated omega-3 or omega-6 fats) have a positive effect on satiety and help to regulate your appetite by controlling the release of appetite hormones.
"Adding a small amount of fat to a meal helps slow down the rate at which your stomach empties during digestion," said Madelyn Fernstrom, NBC News health and nutrition editor. "And the longer some food remains in your stomach, the longer the sense of fullness lasts — sending that signal to your brain."
To increase your intake of these unsaturated fats, add foods like natural peanut butter, avocados, almonds and olive oil to your diet.
2. Fats taste great.
"Our taste buds register fat as smooth and creamy — which is highly desired and a tasty signal to our brain," said Fernstrom. "Fats naturally found in foods (not added) contains loads of flavor components that boost taste."
3. They provide you with energy.
One study found that polyunsaturated fat left study subjects with significantly more energy after lunch.
"The combo of fat, protein and whole-grain carbs can provide the best sources of energy — almond butter ona slice of whole-grain bread can be a great pick-me-up as a late afternoon snack or as a quick breakfast," advised Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D., founder of BetterThanDieting.com and author of "Read It Before You Eat It".
Foods that are high in polyunsaturated fats include plant-based oils like sunflower oil and fish like salmon, mackerel, herring and trout. Additional sources include walnuts, sunflower seeds and tofu. Try adding these foods to your lunches a few times a week.
4. Fat can help to reduce cholesterol levels in your blood.
According to the American Heart Association, polyunsaturated fats can lower your LDL cholesterol levels, which as a result, can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke.
5. Fat combines well with other food ingredients.
"Keeping some fat in the mix allows you to reduce the amount of salt and sugar added when you cook," advised Fernstrom. "Fat boosts flavor, and enhances the taste of both sweet and salty foods."
Combos to add to your diet: Yogurt with almonds, avocado mixed with eggs and topping your salad off with a serving of salmon.
6. Avocados are full of healthy fats.
Who doesn't love avocados? There are a few good reasons to keep eating 'em. A half of an avocado provides about six grams of high-monounsaturated fatty acids and avocado oil is full of healthy, unsaturated fats, which help to promote blood health.
Other studies have found that avocado consumption helps support cardiovascular health, and may even support weight management and healthy aging.
7. Fat helps the body absorb essential vitamins.
"The right fat provides energy, cushions our organs and allows the body to absorb essential nutrients like vitamins A, D, E and K," said Taub-Dix.
8. The body needs fat to survive.
"It's the fats derived from plant sources like oils, avocado and almonds, that can help us live healthfully and deliciously," said Taub-Dix.
Try to limit the amount of saturated fats that you eat to 7 percent of your daily calories. Similarly, try to avoid trans fats completely. These trans fatty acids are primarily found in processed foods like doughnuts, baked goods, frozen pizzas, crackers and more. The easiest way to do this is to stick to a diet full of whole, real foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts and lean protein sources.
9. Fat is good for the brain.
Though more research is certainly needed in this area, some studies have found that brain aging and dementia can be influenced by your diet. The key? Avoiding high saturated and trans fats, and increasing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids.
10. Fat keeps your skin and hair looking beautiful.
"Adequate fat in the diet — beauty from within — keeps your skin and hair shiny and healthy," said Fernstrom. "When fat is too restricted, hair and skin can become dry; hair lacks shine and skin loses its healthy glow."
11. Fat can be your weight-loss BFF.
"Yes, fat can be your weight-loss (and healthy) BFF," said Keri Glassman, RD and TODAY Tastemaker. "On the other side, low- or fat-free foods can be your enemy. When fat is removed from food, it's often replaced with sugar for flavor and additional chemicals to retain the taste."
And you're left with a product that has more calories, sugar and chemicals.
"Fat helps you burn fat, and it's also necessary to absorb fat-soluble vitamins," Glassman explained.
Keep these facts in mind the next time you hear something negative about the 'f' word. Not all fats are bad, and the healthy ones are crucial to sustaining a healthy lifestyle for years to come.