This week is ALL ABOUT FAT. I’m talking about the fat you eat (dietary fat), not necessarily the fat on your body. People don’t like to talk about fat because we use the term to describe how someone looks, however it is an essential part of you diet! Similar to carbs, there are ‘good’ fats and ‘bad’ fats. Your body definitely needs the good ones. So, we’re going to talk about what fat is and how your body uses it, how much you should be eating and the breakdown of ‘good’ fats and ‘bad’ fats.
I will also note a little disclaimer with this post and future nutrition-based posts: I am not a nutritionist, registered dietician, or a doctor. All of my information comes from personal experience, my soon-to-be husband who is a soon-to-be doctor, and reading a lot of different books and internet articles.
WHAT IS FAT & HOW DOES YOUR BODY USE IT
We’ve already talked about protein and carbs, so last but certainly not least is the third macronutrient: fats. Like protein and unlike carbs, fats are essential. Eating fat provides your body with essential fatty acids. Essential means your body cannot produce them on its own so you must get them through your diet - specifically linoleic acid (omega-3’s) and alpha linolenic acid (omega-6’s). These essential fats help with inflammation, blood clotting, and brain development. Fat is also what aids in creating healthy cell membranes, including healthy skin and hair. Fat helps the body absorb and move certain vitamins (A, D, E and K) and other nutrients through the bloodstream, too. And it makes your food taste really yummy. Fats do so many things for us and there’s more!
Other than supporting function and cell growth in your body, fats are also an important source of energy. When we talked about carbs, we learned that the body can store extra calories from carbs (glucose) as glycogen in your muscles, but in limited amounts. Post-workout, your body taps into these glycogen stores first because they are quickly absorbed. When your muscles tap into your fat stores for energy, they must first be broken down into fatty acids, which takes much longer. Beyond that, your body’s extra calories are stored as fat and can be stored in unlimited amounts, creating a reserve of energy for your body to tap into during periods of low-energy, like when you’re sleeping or during physical activity.
GOOD FATS VS. BAD FATS
As I’m sure you’re well aware, there are different kinds of fats - ‘good’ fats and ‘bad’ fats. Depending on your source, your body processes fats differently. Some support health while others are risk factors for many diseases. Let’s break it down.
TRANS FAT | this is considered by some to be the worst type of fat because it not only increases your LDL (bad cholesterol) but decreases your HDL (good cholesterol). Trans fat is the result of an industrial process known as hydrogenation. By adding hydrogen to vegetable oil, the oil becomes solid at room temperature. This partially hydrogenated oil is what allows processed foods to have a longer shelf life. It’s most often found in commercial baked goods and doughs, margarine, and fried foods. When reading food labels, try to avoid foods that contain partially hydrogenated oil, which is code for trans fat.
SATURATED FAT | in technical terms, saturated fatty acids do not contain any double bonds between carbons, meaning they are saturated in hydrogen, hence its name, saturated fat. That’s important because of the way your body handles saturated fat is it doesn’t - saturated fats cannot be broken down in the body so they are collected and stored; the more they are stored in the body, the more they burden the body with an array of health issues. Most specifically, a high-intake of saturated fat increases your LDL (bad cholesterol), which is a risk factor for many diseases, especially heart disease.
Most common sources of saturated fats include dairy like butter, cheese, whole milk, ice cream, and cream along with fatty meats. Most saturated fats are solid at room temperature. Vegetable oils are also a common form of saturated fats. In general, intake of saturated fats should be kept to no more than 10% of your daily intake, but ideally closer to 7%. For example, if you are eating a 2,000 calorie per day diet, you should be eating no more than 22 grams of saturated fat per day.
UNSATURATED FAT | these are the good fats you want to include in your diet; they help lower blood cholesterol when eaten in place of saturated fats and trans fats. Unsaturated fatty acids can be monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. All this means is the number of double bonds it contains (sciency stuff). What’s important is that you make sure you’re getting some of each.
Monounsaturated fats are found in avocados, olives, and olive oil. Polyunsaturated fats include Omega-3’s and Omega-6’s. These are important because these are two essential fatty acids that must be obtained through your diet. A few sources of Omega-3’s include walnuts, ground flaxseed, and soybeans. Omega-6’s can be found in nuts and seeds, such as sunflower seeds, brazil nuts, pine nuts, and pecans.
Overall, fats are a combination of fatty acids. So, even the healthy ‘good’ fats we eat contain some combination of saturated, unsaturated, and trans fats. For optimal health, the goal is to make sure you’re replacing as many ‘bad’ fats with ‘good’ fats in order to decrease your LDL and help increase your HDL. Small changes make a huge difference. For example, instead of eating cheese (high in saturated fat) on your sandwich or in a salad, try replacing it with avocado (good unsaturated fat). Instead of using ranch dressing or a cream based dressing (high in saturated fat) on your salad, opt for one that is olive oil based (good unsaturated fat).
HOW MUCH FAT SHOULD YOU EAT & WHEN SHOULD YOU EAT IT?
We’ve established what fat is, how it’s used by the body and the difference between ‘good’ fats and ‘bad’ fats. Even though you definitely need to include healthy fats in your diet, at the end of the day fat is still fat and should be consumed in limited quantities. In general, a healthy amount of fats is about 30% of your daily calories. Since fat contains 9 calories per gram, someone who eats a 2000 calorie per day diet would have an intake of about 65 grams of fat.
Total calories x .30 = cal. from fats / 9 = grams of fat per day
In general, fat calories should be balanced throughout the day. If you are not very active or have goals of weight loss, avoid eating large quantities of fats right before bed as they often need a little more time to digest before they can be used for energy.
GOOD SOURCES OF FATS
Here’s the bottom line when it comes to fat: it does not make you fat if you are eating the right kinds. With ‘good’ fats, Omega-3’s and Omega-6’s are at the top of the list. Each of these sources listed below contain one or both and is what you should be seeking out when choosing ‘good’ fat sources to include in your diet.
FISH | if possible, try to eat wild or sustainably raised cold-water fish, like salmon, halibut, mackerel, trout, or black cod. Sardines, herring, and tuna are also great options.
AVOCADO | avocados are a great source of monounsaturated fats and also contain a good amount of fiber, too!
OLIVES | another great source of monounsaturated fats; a small handful of olives added to a salad or even as a snack is plenty.
OIL | There are MANY different kinds of oils out there. From olive oil to coconut oil and everything in between. Some are better than others and some you should stay away from all together. Keep your eyes peeled for my second post later this week, which will be your guide to oils.
NUTS & NUT-BUTTERS | walnuts (one of the best sources of omega-3’s), pistachios, pecans, cashews, almonds, and peanuts (and their butter forms) contain healthy fats and you don’t need very much of them to get the job done. A handful or two spoonfuls a day is plenty to reap all the benefits.
SEEDS | sunflower seeds and chia seeds are both great for adding to smoothies or smoothie bowls, salads and overnight oats.
GROUND FLAXSEED | 1-2 tablespoons per day provides loads of healthy omega-3’s and can easily be added to a shake or mixed in with your morning oats.
BAD SOURCES OF FATS
Fats that are considered ‘bad’ sources of fat are those that do not contain essential fatty acids, like Omega-3’s. They are high in saturated fat and trans fat and can be a risk factor for disease.
FATTY MEATS | try to avoid fatty cuts of beef, pork, and lamb and dark chicken, especially with the skin. And yes, I’m sorry to say this does include bacon.
DAIRY | high-fat or whole-fat dairy intake should also be kept to a minimum; think cheese, whole milk, butter and ice cream.
PROCESSED FOOD | stay away from anything that contains partially hydrogenated oil, which is a lot of processed foods and commercial baked goods
FRIED FOOD | many restaurants use partially hydrogenated oil (trans fat) in their fryers because you don’t have to change it as often as other oils. Needless to say, it’s no good.
SHORTENING & MARGARINE | these fats are solid at room temperature which is your indication that there are better options out there to support your health quest.
Fats are nothing to be afraid of, in fact, they play a very important part to our health and our well-being. The most important thing to remember with fats is what kind of fat you’re eating.
- Fat is essential - it’s used to support cell growth and provides the body with energy.
Work on replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat (Omega-3’s and Omega-6’s) and avoid trans fat (partially hydrogenated oils) as much as possible.
In general, 20-30% of your overall daily calories should come from ('good') fats and should be evenly proportioned throughout the day.