Why do we love eating fatty foods so much? Fats are the things that make food rich and creamy, giving them their smooth texture. We know that fats can lead to clogged arteries and many other health problems, but are all fats unhealthy?
Does eating fat make us fat? The short answer to both of these questions is no, they do not. The low-fat and fat-free craze was really a marketing campaign and had nothing to do with healthy eating. In fact, anything marketed as low-fat or fat-free is usually higher in sugar and preservatives. These processed foods are in no way healthier or a better alternative. Naturally occurring low fat foods, that are not processed, can however be beneficial. It really comes down to natural versus man made and animal versus plant based fats. Finding the "good fats" and including them in your diet is the healthiest way to eat. You just need to pick your fats wisely.
In this installment of our blogs on nutrition, we will be taking a look at fats- what they are, why they are important, how much we need, fats and health, great sources of fats and more.
Why Are Fats Important?
Fats are one of the 3 macronutrients every body needs to function. Alongside protein and carbohydrates, they are vitally important for our health and for our body's systems to operate optimally.
Fats have a wide variety of uses and roles within the body. One of the main purposes of fats are as an energy source. Fats are also very important for maintaining healthy skin and hair, healthy cell function and they help metabolize the fat soluble vitamins. They are also used as insulation and protection of organs and body structures. The body can even store harmful toxins within adipose tissue (fat).
Additionally, fats can help us feel full for longer and aid in many important biological functions. One important part of fats are essential fatty acids (EFAs), or omegas, which you can get from things like flax seeds.
So, What Exactly Are Dietary Fats?
Fats are a subgroup of lipids known as triglycerides. A lipid is an organic compound that is not soluble in water. Triglycerides are a type of fat (lipid) found in your blood. When you eat, your body converts any calories it doesn't need to use right away into triglycerides. The triglycerides are then stored in your fat cells. Later, hormones release triglycerides for energy between meals. So, fats are your body's way of storing energy.
Dietary fat contains more than double the calories (energy) per gram than that of carbohydrates and proteins. This is probably why the body stores excess energy as fat, and not as carbohydrates or proteins. We would need to store over twice the amount, for the same amount of energy, which would make the body much bigger and heavier.
Most foods (aside from oils) are not made primarily of just fat. This helps us not ingest too much at one time. Of the foods that are primarily made of just fat, we don't often eat them by themselves, but use them as part of a meal, like cooking with oil, or adding avocado to your tacos.
There are three main types of dietary fat, they are known as saturated fats, unsaturated fats and trans fats. Fats can be thought of as the good, the bad and the ugly. The good fats being unsaturated fats, the bad fats being saturated fats and the ugly fats being trans fats.
- Unsaturated Fats: Unsaturated fats are the healthy fats that we want to include in our diets. Unsaturated fats are predominantly found in plants, oils and fish. They come in two types, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. The difference between the two types has to do with their chemical structure and health benefits. These fats are typically liquid at room temperature.
- Saturated Fats: Saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature and most often come from animals sources. However, a few plant sources are also high in saturated fats. These include coconut and palm products and some oils. These fats are not healthy for us and should be eaten in moderation.
- Trans Fats: Although trans fats do occur naturally, in small amounts, in things like meat and dairy products, most dietary trans fats are human made. Many trans fats are hydrogenated, which is the process of adding extra hydrogen molecules to plant oils. This process keeps them from going rancid for longer periods of time and makes them solid at room temperature, instead of liquid. Trans fats are used for many junk foods and fried foods. Hydrogenated oils are unhealthy and should be avoided entirely. If they are present in foods, their presence must be listed on the food's ingredients (best to check the ingredient list for "partially hydrogenated oils," as the label can say 0g trans fat per serving, when they might actually have up to 0.5g per serving and still be listed as 0g.).
Fats and Health
Whether fats are health promoting or damaging comes down to which types of fats we consume.
- Positive Health Impacts of Fat: The positive health benefits from fats come from the unsaturated fats. More specifically, they usually come from essential fatty acids, which are sometimes inside of unsaturated fats. Essential fatty acids cannot be produced by the body. Therefore, we must get them from our diet. The two types of essential fatty acids are Omega-3 and Omega-6. Omegas have been found to have many health benefits in the body. According to the National Institute of Health, the National Library of Medicine and the Australian (Victorian) Health Channel, they help raise good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol, help prevent cognitive decline and boost mental health, and contribute to heart health. They also may help prevent cancer and autoimmune diseases, as well as help with inflammation, eye health and arthritis.
- Negative Health Impacts of Fat: The negative health impacts from fats are related to saturated fats and trans fats. According to the American Heart Association, these fats are known to raise levels of bad cholesterol (LDL), contribute to clogged arteries, high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes and heart/cardiovascular disease.
Fat Sources1. Sources of Unsaturated Fats and Omegas (These are the "good fats"):
- Algae such as seaweed
- Chia Seeds
- Flaxseeds and flaxseed oil
- Soybean oil
- Brussels sprouts
2. Sources of Saturated Fats (These would be the "bad fats" to have in moderation only) :
- Meat- Beef, chicken, etc.
- Dairy- Butter, Cheese, Ice Cream, etc.
- Coconuts, Coconut Oil, etc.
- Palm and Palm Oils, etc.
3. Trans Fats (These would be the "ugly fats" to avoid altogether):
- Fried foods
- Packaged snack foods and commercially baked foods like cookies, pizza, pastries
- Hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils
- Processed peanut butter
- Margarine and Vegetable Shortening
Fat deficiency is characterized by hair loss, dry rashes, a compromised immune system and issues related to vitamin deficiencies (poor absorption of fat soluble vitamins).According to the Cleveland Clinic, fats should make up 20%-35% of your calories. These calories should come from:
- Monounsaturated fat: 15% to 20%
- Polyunsaturated fat: 5% to 10%
- Saturated fat: less than 10%
- Trans fat: 0%
- Cholesterol: less than 300 mg per day
- It is also recommended by the National Health Institute that you get 0.5-1.5g of Omegas per day, we need more as we age.
Easy Ways To Get More Healthy Fats In Your Diet
Although you can supplement omegas and other fats in your diet, eating real food is always better. There are many easy ways to get more healthy fats in your diet. A few of our favorites are to:
- Add plant oils, nuts and avocado to our salads.
- Cook with olive oil.
- Snack on nuts and olives.
- Add flaxseed, kale, avocados and spinach to our smoothies.
- Choose whole foods, nothing packaged or processed.
Dietary fat (fat in foods and drinks) is important for many body processes. For example, it helps move some vitamins around the body and helps with making hormones. Fats can make foods rich and creamy, so consuming meals with small amounts of fat can make foods more enjoyable and can satisfy our hunger for longer.
Following a Mediterranean diet, which is a diet high in healthy fats (such as extra virgin olive oil), fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grain breads and cereals, may reduce your risk of chronic disease development and increase your life expectancy.
Fats not only taste great, they also have the ability to damage or protect our health. The key is to limit the unhealthy saturated and trans fats and eat plenty of healthy unsaturated fats, especially those high in omegas. Does this mean that you can never have ice cream or fried foods again? Absolutely not, just try to eat them sparingly and not every day. It's easy to add some healthy fats to our meals by adding a little bit of oil or nuts. Although fats are delicious, make foods rich and creamy and can help benefit many aspects of health, it is also important to remember that they provide a little over double the calories of the other macronutrients, so be mindful of your intake. Even too much of a good thing can be bad.
*This blog is created and published online for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice. Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition.