Just like carbohydrates, fats have been vilified by the health and fitness industry. Including fats in your diet is not only incredibly beneficial, but is also necessary to your health and overall well-being. In this post, we’ll cover:
- The Benefits of Dietary Fats
- The Types of Fats and Their Sources
- How Much and Which Types of Fats You Should Be Eating
The Benefits of Dietary Fats
There are many benefits that dietary fats provide the body – here are just a few:
- Provides Energy: Fat is the main fuel source our bodies use for low intensity energy needs. At rest, about 70% of the body’s primary fuel comes from fat.
- Assists with Vitamin Absorption: Fat-soluble vitamins (A,D, E, K) all need fat in order to be used by the body.
- Supports Reproductive Health: For women, not eating enough fat is a common cause of infertility; for men, it can reduce testosterone and other hormones needed for reproductive health.
- Supports Brain Function: The brain is made up of 60% fat and 25% cholesterol, so both are needed to support overall brain health. Omega-3 fats are particularly important for brain health and cognitive function. Also, saturated fats in particular appear to have neuroprotective effects on the brain and help guard against diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.1
- Reduces Depression: Having the proper balance between Omega-3s and Omega-6s positively influence the function of the neurotransmitter systems in your brain that help control how you feel. These neurotransmitters include serotonin norepinephrine and dopamine.
- Improves Cholesterol (saturated fats): There are two types of cholesterol, HDL and LDL. There are also two types of LDL: smaller, dense particles that are associated with heart disease risk, and larger, fluffy particles that are considered benign. Low to modest saturated fat intake (10-30% of total fat intake) actually increases the good cholesterol (HDL) as well as the larger, fluffy LDL, but does not affect the smaller LDL (improvement of cholesterol markers and preventing heart disease is best done by restricting sugar and watching processed carbohydrate intake).
- Improves Skin and Eye Health: Eating a variety of fats helps prevent dry skin and eyes by helping the body lubricate itself from the inside out.
The Types of Fat
- Saturated Fat: Typically solid at room temperature. Found in both animal and plant sources such as meat products, eggs, high fat dairy products, and tropical oils (coconut, cocoa butter, and palm kernel oil).
- Unsaturated Fats: Typically liquid at room temperature. There are two types of unsaturated fats:
– Monounsaturated Fats: Found mainly in plant sources (avocado, nuts, peanut oil, olives, olive oil).
– Polyunsaturated Fats: Found mainly in plant oils (safflower, corn, cottonseed) as well as fish.
There are also two types of polyunsaturated fats:
– Omega-3: Found primarily in fish oils.
– Omega-6: Found primarily in vegetable oils.
Americans tend to consume too many Omega-6s and not enough Omega-3s, an ideal ratio being 3:1 (rather than the current 10:1). Also, polyunsaturated fats can be highly processed (especially vegetable oils) which not only negates any health benefits, but can actually be detrimental to health. Always look for oils that are “cold-pressed” or “extra virgin” when purchasing vegetable oils which means processing has been kept to a minimum.
- Trans Fats: A manufactured form of fat created by superheating and adding hydrogen to liquid (unsaturated) fats to turn them into a solid form of fat. This process is used to extend the shelf life of processed foods such as cookies, candy bars, cake mixes, chips, crackers, breakfast cereal, and non-dairy creamer.
How Much and What Types Of Fats Should I Eat?
Fat should make up 20-35% of your total caloric intake. At 9 calories per gram, this would equal 44 – 78 grams per day for someone maintaining their weight on a 2,000 calorie diet. Some people do well with even higher amounts of fat in their diet. Fat does not make you fat – excess calories do. So, for the person who does well on a higher fat diet, carbohydrates should be reduced to maintain caloric balance.
Rather than trying to figure out exactly which types of fats you should be eating, think about fats as “processed vs unprocessed” rather than “healthy vs unhealthy”. Precision Nutrition provides a great graphic to illustrate this:
”Notice that generally, fat type alone doesn’t determine the healthiness — rather, healthy fats are found in whole, unprocessed foods, while unhealthy fats are found in processed foods.” 2-3
A good place to start is to think of dividing your fat intake up into thirds: 3
- 1/3 of fats from saturated sources
- 1/3 of fats from mono-unsaturated sources
- 1/3 of fats from poly-unsaturated sources (with much of that being Omega-3s)
When adding fat to your diet, focus on high quality, natural, minimally processed foods such as:
- Fatty fish
- Nuts and seeds
- Fresh olives
- Cold-pressed or extra-virgin oils
- Raw coconut or raw cacao
- Pastured butter and full-fat dairy
- Eggs from pasture raised poultry
- Fatty meats if pastured / grass-fed
Remember, quality of fat sources is key in gaining the health benefits from including these fats in your diet. You are what you eat, and your body will only function as well as the fuel you provide it.
The information found on this blog is based on my own personal thoughts and opinions. I am not a doctor or registered dietician. Please be sure to consult your health care professional before starting or changing any fitness or nutrition program.
Henriques, Tim. NPTI’s Fundamentals of Fitness and Personal Training. United States: Human Kinetics, 2015.
Copyright: nataliahubbert / 123RF Stock Photo