Fat gets a lot of attention these days, and though it may seem contrary to what you’ve always believed about it, it can actually be good for you. For a long time, it was thought by major health organizations that the key to a healthy life is a low-fat diet (hence the food pyramid of the ‘90s which recommended 6-11 servings of carbs, and fats to be used “sparingly”).(1)
Today, these same organizations have updated their stance on fats – concluding that many of them provide necessary nutrients to our bodies and diets. Plus, if you’re trying to lose or manage your weight, fat can actually be a welcome ally in your efforts – making high-fat diets increasingly popular.
Whether or not fat is healthy depends largely on the type… which we’ll dive into in this article. Plus, we’ll look at some of the best sources of dietary fat, and the daily recommendations you should follow based on your eating plan.
Why Do You Need Fat?
It may seem strange that fat performs important functions in your body, but it does! As one of the three major macronutrients in your diet (the other two being protein and carbs), fat is essential for a number of functions: (2)
- Boosts Energy– It’s an excellent energy source compared to protein and carbs.
- Regulates Hormones – It regulates the production of different hormones and genes involved in growth and metabolism.
- Fuels Brain– Fat is needed for a healthy brain and mood.
- Helps Absorb Nutrients– Essential fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K all need fat to be properly absorbed.
- Enhances Flavor and Promotes Satiety– Fat makes your food taste better and helps you stay full longer.
- Provides Insulation/Stored Energy– Your stored fat insulates your organs, keeps you warm and provides a source of energy you can use in times of starvation.
The Basics: 3 Types of Fats
SATURATED FATS: LIMIT THESE
You’ll find these fats in a lot of your favorite foods, but for the most health benefits, you want to limit them in your diet. A good way to recognize saturated fats is that they’re solid at room temperature. (3)
Food Sources of Saturated Fats:
- Coconut (including coconut oil, milk and cream)
- Full-fat dairy products (butter, cream, full fat milk and cheese)
- Meat (especially red meat and fatty cuts of beef, pork, lamb and chicken, chicken skin, and processed meats)
- Palm oil
- Processed baked goods and snack foods (potato chips, cakes, muffins, pastries, pies, etc.)
- High-fat fast foods (french fries, pizza, hamburgers)
How Saturated Fats Affect Your Health:
Eating these fats often can lead to higher overall cholesterol levels, and increase the “bad”, or harmful LDL cholesterol in your body – which could cause blockages in the arteries in your heart and elsewhere in your body. For this reason, reducing the amount of saturated fats in your diet is thought to lower your risk of heart disease. (4) To learn more about cholesterol and your health, read this article on high cholesterol.
UNSATURATED FATS: HELP YOURSELF TO THESE
For increased health, you want to replace a lot of the food sources that include saturated fats with those that have unsaturated fats – considered healthy fats. You can spot many unsaturated fats because they’re liquid at room temperature.
There are two types of unsaturated fats: monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat. Broken down even further, polyunsaturated fats contain two different types of fats: omega-3-fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids.
Food Sources of Monounsaturated Fats (MUFAs):
- Oils such as olive, peanut, canola, avocado, sesame, and high-oleic safflower and sunflower oils
- Nuts and nut butters including almond, cashew, pecan and hazelnut
- Seeds including sesame seeds
- Dark chocolate
Food Sources of Polyunsaturated Fats (PUFAs):
Omega-3 Fatty Acids:
- Fatty/oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring, albacore tune, and lake trout
- Canola oil
- Hydrogenated soybean oil
- Seeds including pumpkin, sunflower, flax and chia seeds
Omega-6 Fatty Acids:
- Vegetable oils such as safflower, soybean, sunflower, walnut and corn oils
- Some nuts and seeds including walnuts, flaxseeds, pecans, poppy, pumpkin and sesame
How Unsaturated Fats Affect Your Health:
Both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats help reduce blood pressure, raising “good”, HDL cholesterol in the body and lowering triglycerides, lowering your risk of heart disease. Although both omega-3 and omega-6 fats are important for health, recent research shows that maintaining a proper ratio between them is the most important aspect of all. (5)
Benefits of Omega-3 Fats:
- Great for your cells and are a major part of cell membranes
- Help make hormones that regulate blood, heart and genetic function
- Help prevent heart disease and stroke
- May help control lupus, eczema and rheumatoid arthritis and protect against cancer.
Benefits of Omega-6 Fats:
- May provide heart health benefits
- Assist with brain function, muscle growth and hormone production
Essential: A Good Omega-3 to Omega-6 Ratio
Though they provide benefits, omega-6 fats are also inflammatory, and compete with omega-3s in the body. In addition, the average diet in the US and many other Western countries skews towards high amounts of omega-6 fats (found in oils used in many processed foods like candy, cookies, crackers, pizza and popcorn), instead of the more healthful omega-3s.
The recommended ratio of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 fatty acids is 4:1 (4 omega 6s to every 1 omega-3); some experts go even further, recommending a 1:1 ratio for anti-aging benefits!
Currently, it’s been shown that the average American eats a ratio of anywhere from 12:1 to 25:1 omega-6s to omega-3s!
TRANS FATS – AVOID THESE COMPLETELY
Trans fats are the worst type of fat – but luckily you don’t have to worry about them much anymore in the US because the FDA ordered them removed from packaged foods and restaurants in June, 2018.
Trans fats are highly-processed unsaturated fats that therefore act like saturated fats. They undergo a process called hydrogenation which turns them into solids and prevents them from going bad or rancid.
Eating these types of fats increases the levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol in your body and decreases the amount of “good” HDL cholesterol – a condition which is a major risk factor for heart disease. In addition, research has linked the consumption of trans fats to major issues such as chronic inflammation, increased risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, and behavior problems. (6)
Here is where you used to find trans fats in the US:
- Vegetable shortening
- Packaged foods such as potato chips, cupcakes, pastries, etc.
- Microwave popcorn
- Processed meats
- Baked goods and pie crusts
As of last June, trans fats were removed from 98 percent of products in the US – but they still exist in a few items for a short time. Some companies had a hard time finding an adequate replacement for trans fats in a few food items, so the FDA gave them one year to remove it from those as well. Until then, make sure you check your product labels.
Recommended Daily Servings for Fats
The amount of fat that you should eat each day depends very much on your specific dietary goals. The 2015-2020 US Dietary Guidelines doesn’t give an upper limit for how much total fat you should consume daily. (2)
However, it does suggest you keep saturated fat to less than 10 percent of your daily calories. So, for a 2,000 calorie a day diet, that’s 200 calories or roughly 22 grams of fat.
In addition, here are some suggestions for different dietary plans:
Low Fat Diet: Keep fat to 30% of daily calories or less
- 1,500 calories a day: 50g of fat
- 2,000 calories a day: 67g of fat
- 2,500 calories a day: 83g of fat
Moderate-Fat Mediterranean Diet: Make fat 35-40% of calories
- 1,500 calories a day: 58-67g of fat
- 2,000 calories a day: 78-89g of fat
- 2,500 calories a day: 97-111g of fat
High-Fat/Low-Carb (or Keto Diet): Make fat 50-75% of calories
- 1,500 calories a day: 83-125g of fat
- 2,000 calories a day: 111-167g of fat
- 2500 calories a day: 139-208g of fat
Take Away Message On Fats
Eating fat will not make you fat! In fact, fat is a completely vital and downright necessary part of your daily diet. Your body depends on fats for a number of different functions, and you should consider them (especially MUFAs and PUFAs including abundant omega-3s), a potent source of increased vitality in your life.