Dietary fats have been recognized as a nutritional villain over the years, perhaps even the biggest of them all. From the 1960’s to the early 2000’s the “fat-free era” was at large and there was a major increase in the production of highly processed, “fat-free” foods with the misconception that all fats are bad. Today we know this is not true. Just like carbohydrates, or any food for that matter, there are plenty of healthy sources and they can all play a part in a healthy lifestyle. We just must learn to recognize them and where they fit in our lifestyle.
So, what are these sources of healthy dietary fats? What’s the difference between unsaturated & saturated fats? Should you be on a high fat diet? If you’ve been on the fence about introducing more healthy fats into your diet, read on to learn why choosing healthy fat sources may enhance your quality of life and which fats we should completely avoid.
What is Dietary Fat and what is it’s function?
Like the other two macronutrients, carbohydrates and protein, fats are an important for our health providing us with energy to efficiently function both mentally & physically when we make the right choices in reasonable amounts. Dietary fats are made up of triglycerides. Our bodies break these triglycerides down into fatty acids that we either use for fuel or store for later use. Carbs & protein provide us with 4kcal/g of food while fats provide us with 9kcal/g making them the most calorie (energy) dense food available to us. That’s more than twice the amount! This also gives reason to closely monitor your consumption if you’re following a calorie restricted diet. Our body typically uses fat as a fuel reserve and not so much the preferred fuel that carbohydrates have claim to. We are always using both fat and stored glycogen (product of carbohydrates) to fuel our activities, but fat is primarily used to fuel activities of a lower intensity like aerobic activities such as walking or minimal effort jogging. When our physical activities begin to get more intense, the ratio of our bodies fuel choice shifts toward utilizing stored glycogen from carbohydrates over (but still along with) fats to fuel the activity.
Fats have several other functions such as aiding in the absorption of necessary fat-soluble vitamins (so next time you drink your green smoothie try adding some healthy fats for greater benefits), healthier hair, skin, & nails, controlled inflammation, protects organs, fills fat cells (we do need some fat on our bodies to live believe it or not), improves insulin sensitivity (aids in fat loss, yes eating fat helps you burn it too), and even prevents forms of cancer. It’s almost like all this healthy food we are talking about does the same thing medicine does! Sorry I can get a little smart sometimes...
Types of Dietary Fat
There are a few different kinds of dietary fat. Each of these fatty acids contain an even number of carbon atoms along a chain of hydrogen atoms. Whether the carbon atoms on the chain have zero, one, or multiple double bonds of carbon atoms determines whether a dietary fat is saturated or unsaturated.
Saturated fats are the fatty acids with no double bonds on the hydrogen chain and have had an especially bad reputation over the years considered to be unhealthy and artery clogging. However, they have now been proven to be a small part of a healthy diet if from a healthy source. So maybe don’t go to town on them everyday, but try keeping saturated fats to about 10% of your total daily fat intake and you will be completely fine. They are primarily found in dairy, butter, cheese, coconut oil/coconut meat, fatty cuts of meat, and lard & cream. Just like all foods, there are healthier versions of saturated fats. Organic forms free from hormones & antibiotics most animals are raised with today. Examples are: Grass-fed/grass-finished cuts of meat, dairy from your local farmer, 100% dark chocolate, grass-fed butter at your grocery store (I like Kerry Gold), and coconut oil are all healthier sources of saturated fat.
Unsaturated fats are defined as fatty acids with at least one double bond in the chain. You may also see them titled as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats based on the number of double bonds they have (“mono” meaning single and “poly” meaning multiple). These are considered to be the “healthy fats” and what you want most of your fat intake to consist of. The primary benefits of unsaturated fats are lower cholesterol levels, protection against heart disease, and a strong anti-inflammatory agent.
Trans fat (Trans fatty acids)
Trans fats are the dietary fat you want to completely avoid. These fats wreak havoc on your body encouraging inflammation, rapidly raising cholesterol levels, and just priming your body to hold on to extra body fat. Trans fats were produced by the food industry to increase shelf life of the product. This is done by adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils making it a solid. If you’ve heard the name “partially hydrogenated oils”, this is exactly it and it’s no good. In 2015 the FDA deemed trans fats unsafe and banned trans fat from all products in America. The grocery stores & restaurants were allowed a grace period of three years until 2018 to toss absolutely everything containing trans fat understanding it couldn’t all be done in the snap of a finger, so there should be no worries of trans fats being in your food any longer. You were able to find trans fats in deep fryers at restaurants, baked goods, margarine, creamers, convenient frozen foods, fast food, anything with an impressive shelf life really. Although they aren’t legal anymore, it may still be a good idea to keep an eye out for “hydrogenated oil” on the ingredients list and any amount of trans fat on the nutrition facts label.
So, that’s the skinny on fats! (see what I did there?) You have saturated, unsaturated (monounsaturated & polyunsaturated), and trans fatty acids. A little saturated fat is okay, lots of unsaturated fat is encouraged, and trans fat should be completely avoided. Benefits of healthy dietary fats range from external benefits like healthier hair, skin, and nails, to internal benefits like improved insulin sensitivity, healthier heart & blood, and a strong tool to fight inflammation. Like all macronutrients, they have their place in a balanced diet, and consumption should be monitored & tailored to your lifestyle. Two macros down! One to go.
About the author Cole Monahan
Small town boy from Lenoir City, TN learns about the importance of mental, physical, & spiritual health in his late teens and turns international model at 21. After traveling the world and becoming a certified personal trainer/nutritionist, he is now on a mission to use his platform to educate the world about living a fuller, healthier life.