Today's post is brought to you by Camille, intern with dailyServing and Katie Goldberg, RD.
Does “fat make you fat”? Historically, physicians and dietitians have encouraged patients to limit fat intake for the sake of their heart health and waistlines. The low-fat trend took root in the late 1980s and since then, low-fat has been an eye-catching marketing technique used by food companies to lure in consumers. Sometimes the foods slapped with low-fat labels are naturally so, but too often it involves a lot of processing where the natural fats are replaced with artificial ingredients (who remembers Olestra?!) Recently, fat is back in fashion, and the health food industry is embracing fat as an essential part of a healthful diet.
Functions of healthy fats in your diet
- Fat helps your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, and move them through the blood stream so your body can use them appropriately.
- Essential fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6 can only come from the diet, and are necessary for many normal body functions.
- Fat helps control inflammation, blood clotting, and brain development.
- Fat improves the health of hair, skin, nails, and strengthens the cell membranes of all tissues.
- Fat stored by the body is used as a source of fuel after carbohydrate sources are depleted.
So should I try to eat MORE fat?
Not exactly. As we know, too much of anything can have negative effects. Fats provide 9 calories per gram, while carbohydrates and protein have only 4. That means that foods high in fat are usually more calorically dense that others, and calories in excess of what our body uses leads to weight gain. To ensure we don’t crowd out other nutrients, we should all follow the guidelines of 20-35% of our daily calories coming from fat. However, not all fats are created equal. You’ve probably heard of three types of fats: Saturated, Unsaturated, and Trans. Understanding the difference between the three can help you make the best choices for your health.
The story of trans fats looks a little like Taylor Swift’s song “Bad Blood.” Trans fats were all the hype when first discovered, and are now being put to shame even by the US Food and Drug Administration. Food scientists were “thinking that [they] could be trusted” but it turns out that trans fats actually cause “bad blood”. We should really avoid trans fats all together. Read those labels carefully – trans fats are made in a laboratory by adding hydrogen to the fat to make it more stable. Thus, foods that contain “hydrogenated” oils contain trans fats, even if the label says 0g.
Saturated fats are found mostly in animal sources, and should be limited to 4-6% of our total calories. Therefore, if you are consuming a 2,000-calorie diet, about 80-120 calories should come from saturated fat, which is about 9-13 grams. While research regarding saturated fat intake is controversial, it is important that we understand that saturated fat in the recommended amount is beneficial.
Saturated fat improves bone health by aiding in calcium absorption. It aids in the repair and functioning of the brain, which is made up of fat and cholesterol to begin with. It even promotes proper immune function by improving the ability of white blood cells to identify and fight off infection. Additionally, saturated fats contain powerful compounds like lauric and myristic acid that are only otherwise found in a mother’s breast milk. For these and many other reasons, saturated fat is gaining a comeback from its bad name.
However, it is still important that we understand quality over quantity. For example, a medium chain saturated fat such as coconut oil may be more beneficial than a long chain saturated fat like those found animal sources because of the body’s ability to break it down more efficiently. Additionally, choosing organic, hormone-free meats and animal products are always the best option.
Unsaturated fats are found mostly in plant sources like nuts, seeds, olives and avocados; fatty fish being the exception. Since they are plant-based, these fats don’t bring any cholesterol to the table. Unsaturated fats are a big category and include both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Within the polyunsaturated fats are the Omega-3 and Omega-6 essential fatty acids.
Monounsaturated fats have been proven to reduce LDL (bad cholesterol) and have a neutral effect on HDL (good cholesterol). They can be found in nuts, seeds, avocados, and olive oil.
Polyunsaturated fats have been proven to reduce LDL and simultaneously increase HDL. They are found in salmon and other fatty fish, flax seeds, and certain vegetable oils.
Omega-3 and omega-6 are essential fatty acids that must be consumed through the diet, as our bodies are not able to make them on their own. Omega-3 fats are found in fatty fish (in the animal forms, EPA and DHA), and flaxseed, flaxseed oil, walnuts, and soybean oil (in the plant form ALA). We can convert ALA to EPA or DHA, but it’s not a very efficient process, so it is optimum to consume omega-3 fats from both plant and animal sources.
Omega-6 fatty acids are found in vegetable oils, nuts, whole wheat breads, and chicken. Most Americans have no problem consuming enough omega-6, but would benefit from focusing on incorporating more omega-3 sources into their diet. The ratio of the two is important to provide the powerful anti-inflammatory effects, encourage brain development, and to protect against cardiovascular disease. Recommendations suggest 3:1 (omega-6 to omega-3) is a good ratio. Currently, the average American diet has a ratio of closer to 15:1.
Since the 1990s, the Mediterranean diet has become increasingly popular. This pattern of eating includes moderate fat intake in the form of mono- and poly-unsaturated fats by including high intake of fish, nuts, seeds, and olive oil. Additionally, the Mediterranean diet limits meats and saturated fat intake, and is known as a leading heart-healthy diet. Beyond just dietary implications, those who historically practiced the Mediterranean diet were also very physically active and had lower levels of stress.
For more information about fats, and how to get the most out of incorporating them into your diet, I recommend the following resources:
What are your favorite ways to add healthy fats to your diet?
Camille is a Dietetic intern working with dailyServing, LLC and Katie Goldberg, RD as part of her supervised practice hours. She is also earning her MBA from Dominican University’s Brennan School of Business and one day hopes to change consumer nutrition choices through affective and informative marketing and education. Camille is an alumna of Ohio University in Athens, Ohio and is passionate about cooking, running, traveling, and supporting animal welfare.