Ever since the fat-free food craze of the '90s, everyone's been hating on fat. But fat has long been misunderstood.
To set the record straight—and let go of your fat fears—get the facts:
Myth 1: Eating fat makes you fat.
Truth: The fat you eat is very different from the fat your body stores. Because it takes your body a long time to digest fat, the nutrient helps keeps you full. This stops you from wolfing down extra calories (from any food source) that your body stores as fat—so eating fat can actually help you manage your weight.
For the record, it's eating too much that leads to weight gain—and refined carbs, which stoke your appetite, tend to be the culprit, says Robert Lustig, MD, professor at the University of California San Francisco's School of Medicine and director of the college's Weight Assessment for Teen and Child Health program.
Just like carbs and protein, fat is another type of nutrient. Because it facilitates the absorption of the vitamins responsible for skin and hair health, and is broken down into essential fatty acids that your brain can't think clearly without, eating fat isn't an option—it's a necessity you can't afford to skimp on.
Myth 2: There are two kinds of fat: healthy and unhealthy.
Truth: You might have heard that saturated fat and trans fat are the bad guys, while unsaturated fats are good for you. But it's actually a bit more complicated than that: There are seven different types of fat that range from saintly to semi-destructive. To simply things, just focus on eating fats toward the top of this list:
Myth 3: Trans fat won't kill you.
Truth: Trans fat can accumulate in your system—so even small amounts can most certainly shorten your life. That's because trans fats can't be digested by bacteria, Dr. Lustig explains. It's why they have long been used to extend the shelf life of many products. The problem with eating such resilient fat is that your body can't digest it, so it lines your arteries and liver, and creates a dangerous situation that appears to raise the risk of death from any cause, coronary heart disease, and death from cardiovascular disease, according to a recent review published in the medical journal BMJ. "They're consumable poison," Dr. Lustig says of trans fats.
Myth 4: It's safe to eat foods that have "0 grams trans fat" listed on the label.
Truth: While you're right to look out for and avoid trans fats, foods that contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving can legally list 0 grams of trans fat on their nutrition labels. "Consume four servings of food with less than 0.5 grams per serving, and you'll end consuming 2 whole grams. It doesn't sound significant, but it can still make you sick," Dr. Lustig says.
The best way to avoid trans fats before the FDA phases them out in 2018 is to scan the ingredients for "partially hydrogenated oil." If you see it, that product contains trans fat.
Myth 5: The less saturated fat you eat, the healthier you are.
Truth: "For years we've been vilifying saturated fat, but saturated fats are cardiovascularly neutral—they don't cause heart disease or help heart disease," Dr. Lustig says.
Here's why: It's true that people who eat more saturated fat from fatty meats and butter have a higher risk of heart disease than people who eat less—but replacing saturated fat with refined carbohydrates and added sugars (i.e., eating sugary cereal instead of bacon for breakfast), can land you in the same danger zone, according to a study recently published in Journal of the American College of Cardiology, which examined eating habits and health issues over 30 years.
Study authors say that a diet full of refined carbs is just as dangerous as a diet full of saturated fat from meats and other sources because carbs are easily stored as body fat. That said, if you were to eat less saturated fat and more healthier fats and whole grains, you could lower your risk of heat disease by 25 percent, according to the study.
Myth 6: Full-fat dairy products are unhealthy.
Truth: Research suggests that dairy products contain a unique form of fat that may be absorbed differently than fat from other foods: People who eat full-fat dairy (or a mix of low- and full-fat dairy products) are less likely to be overweight, have high blood pressure, or develop type-2 diabetes, and more likely to live longer than people who don't eat dairy or stick with low-fat varieties.
Myth 7: Olive oil is the healthiest kind of oil.
Truth: Olive oil is super healthy—but it's healthiest when you don't heat it, Dr. Lustig says. At high temperatures, the oil's monounsaturated fats can morph into saturated or trans fats. Peanut, avocado, and sesame oils fair better in heat.
Myth 8: Dressings make salad unhealthy because they're full of fat.
Truth: Your body needs dietary fat to absorb the essential nutrients in your salad's healthy ingredients. Meaning: No fat, no good. So while topping your greens with fat-free dressing or using vinegar without oil will save you calories, it won't do your body any favors.
Myth 9: Cardio burns fat.
Truth: Not right away. Your liver keeps about 1,000 calories worth of easy-to-burn sugars on hand at all times, and you have to burn through that before your body starts to break down fat for fuel, Dr. Lustig says. Because most cardio workouts burn way less than 1,000 calories in an hour, cardio won't necessarily burn body fat—you'd have to stick with it for an unrealistically long period of time to burn through your liver's stores and start incinerating fat for fuel. If you want to burn body fat, don't worry about the kind of exercise you do, Lustig says. Every effort to be more active will help you reach your goal by burning calories so your body can get to work on excess fat.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.