When you hear a food is “high in fat” you immediately think it is bad for you. While there is some truth to that, you need to consider what type of fat you are looking at. Not all fats are created equal. Fatty acids are an extremely vast topic and to give your body proper nutrition, you need to understand the important role fat plays in your health.
Healthy “fatty foods” are finally beginning to shake their bad reputation. Our new friends—avocados, nuts, and olive oil, have become increasingly popular due to their healthy fat content. As consumers, we are starting to see fats incorporated at almost every meal— avocado on toast, coconut oil used in cooking, a compliment of nut-butters offered as nutritious snacks.
In the past, saturated fat was thought to be linked to heart disease and strokes, but it turns out that this may have been a big, fat lie.
A 2010 meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition pooled together data from 21 studies and included almost 350,000 people tracked for an average of 14 years. This study concluded that there is no relationship between the intake of saturated fat and the incidence of heart disease or stroke.
(Siri-Tarino et al. 2010)
Educating Americans on proper fat consumption.
Foods with a higher fat content are finally making a comeback after they were wrongfully blamed for playing a large part in the rise of obesity in the United States. But, as we remain a nation with a growing obesity problem, it is very difficult for organizations like the U.S. Department of Health to begin recommending foods with higher fat content.
However, we are now finding ways that involve healthy eating to educate Americans on proper fat consumption. In February 2016, Mintel Global Market Research presented a 2016 Global Food + Drink Trend on how fat is shedding its stigma. The report noted, “confusion regarding ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’ fats has led the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee to recommend that the 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines focus on optimizing types of dietary fat rather than reducing fat intake. The committee hopes this will ‘encourage a healthier relationship with dietary fats.’” (Mintel, 2016).
In January 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released: New Dietary Guidelines to Encourage Healthy Eating Patterns to Prevent Chronic Diseases which includes recommendations to eat oils from plants (canola, corn, olive, peanut, safflower, soybean, and sunflower) as well as nuts, seeds, seafood, olives, and avocados in order to prevent chronic disease.
The Big Picture
Fat is a macronutrient and our body actually requires fat to function properly. While healthy foods with a high-fat content may be dense in caloric value, they pack a very powerful punch. Healthy foods with good fat content can provide energy and help maintain overall body health.
So while it may go against your instincts to eat butter or olive oil, here is why you should:
A healthy fat diet supports your brain, maintains cell membranes, and helps to cushion your organs for protection.
As far as your brain is concerned, certain fats (like omega-3 and omega-6) protect the nerve fibers and enable your brain to send messages faster. Fat also helps your body absorb vitamins, particularly the fat-soluble vitamins K, D, E, and A. Because of these benefits, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends we get roughly 20% – 35% of our daily calories from fat. So, if you consume 2,000 calories a day that should include between 400-700 calories from fat.
However, this is not to say you shouldn’t be careful with your fat intake. Less than 200 of these calories should be saturated fat, to ensure the majority of your calories from is unsaturated. Additionally, your body stores excess fat in its cells until it is needed for energy. So if you consume more fat than you use for energy, your fat cells expand and you will probably notice your waistline start to increase…
Fat is made up of fatty acids and the number of fatty acids that are present in food indicates how the food is classified—with either a high or low-fat content. In addition to the number of fatty acids present, you must also look at the most heavily prevailing type of fatty acid. The most heavily prevailing type of fatty acid indicates whether the food is high in either saturated or unsaturated fat.
A healthy amount of fat provides more energy per gram than both protein and carbohydrates.
One gram of fat = nine calories for energy, whereas one gram of carbohydrate or protein = only four grams for energy.
Saturated vs. Unsaturated Fat
Saturated and unsaturated fats are distinguished by the chemical composition of their fatty acid chain.
Saturated fat is very stable while unsaturated fat (the healthy fat) is less dense at room temperature. Stored at room temperature, unsaturated fats are liquid (like olive oil) whereas saturated fats are typically solid (like butter). While unsaturated fat is healthier for your body than saturated fat, you need both to maintain a healthy diet— you just need more unsaturated fat than saturated fat!
Unsaturated Fat = A Good Friend
When unsaturated fats are broken down, they help raise your body’s good cholesterol levels. This is where it gets a little complex but stay with us…Cholesterol is actually a type of fat. There is both bad and good cholesterol: LDL and HDL.
LDL (low-density lipoprotein) is bad and HDL (high-density lipoprotein) is good. Cholesterol helps your body function properly, but too much of it will put you at risk for a heart attack or stroke.
By minimizing the LDL cholesterol that is present in your blood, unsaturated fats actually help protect your body against the harm that can be caused by excess saturated fats and high cholesterol.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 73.5 million adults in the United States have high LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, which will negatively affect their long term health.
When you eat unsaturated fat, your HDL levels increase. This increase enables your cells to grab onto the bad LDL compounds and carry them to the liver. This process is called reverse cholesterol transport. When the LDL compounds are in the liver, they are properly broken down and eliminated from your body. By minimizing the LDL cholesterol present in your blood, unsaturated fats actually help protect your body against the harm that can be caused by excess saturated fats and high cholesterol.
Saturated Fat = Friendly Acquaintance
Saturated fats do not contain any double bonds in their chemical composition, making them denser than unsaturated fat. Saturated fat can raise your body’s overall cholesterol levels (including LDL cholesterol). The most well-known foods that contain saturated fat are meat and dairy products. Beef and cheese, for example, contain more saturated fatty acids than an unsaturated fatty acid.
While it is important to be aware of the amount of saturated fat you consume, there are healthy foods that contain saturated fatty acids. The American Heart Association recommends that roughly 120 calories (5-6%) of our total daily calories come from saturated fat. New research indicates that a diet that incorporates saturated fats may not cause an increased risk for Cardiovascular Disease or Coronary Heart Disease. While this isn’t definitive, it is certainly something to watch!
If you follow the daily recommended intake for both saturated and unsaturated fat and you live an active lifestyle, you will find these fats are more your friend than your enemy.
Linoleic omega-6 and linoleic omega-3 are the only two fats that your body cannot synthesize from other fatty acids. Thus, they need to be replenished through your food or supplements. These essential fats are found in sesame seeds and nuts for omega-6 and flax seeds and fatty fish for omega-3.
Within the unsaturated fat “family”, there are different types of fatty acids. There are 2 main groups of unsaturated fats: polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. Polyunsaturated fatty acids have a handful of double bonds, whereas monounsaturated fatty acids only have one. Your body is able to make fatty acids with one or no double bonds. However, the human body is unable to create two types of polyunsaturated fat, which are essential fatty acids in human nutrition.
Trans Fat = Foe
Unlike unsaturated fat and saturated fat, which can be healthily incorporated into your daily regimen, you should be very mindful of trans fats. In fact, you want to avoid partially hydrogenated oils (PHO) as much as possible! PHO is most prevalent in heavily processed foods. Unlike saturated and unsaturated fat, hydrogenated fats are very unnatural substances.
PHOs were actually created by food processing companies after saturated fat was thought to be detrimental to overall body health. To replace saturated fat, food scientists created trans fat from unsaturated fat. Because unsaturated fat has a shorter shelf life, they needed to make the substance more solid in order to have the same functionality as saturated fats at a lower cost. In order to make the unsaturated fat solid, it is hydrogenated. Your body is not familiar with partially hydrogenated oils and thus is not able to properly digest them.
So, what does all this mean for your body?
While fatty acids are present in almost all food to some extent, the amount of each fatty acid indicates its health value. For example, the most heavily prevailing fatty acid in an avocado is oleic acid, which is unsaturated fat. However, while unsaturated fat is the most prominent fatty acid present, saturated fatty acids are present as well—but this doesn’t mean the food is bad! The weight of saturated fat is roughly 15% while the weight of unsaturated fat is roughly 79%.
In addition to avocados, foods like salmon, seeds, nuts, olive oil, coconut oil, flax, vegetables, and legumes will provide healthy, unsaturated fat that will help maintain your body’s good cholesterol, suppress LDL cholesterol, and keep your cells healthy!
There are many ways to get a variety of good fats. For example, you can consume 2 tablespoons of butter (102 calories per tablespoon), 1/2 a cup of sliced almonds (250 calories), 1 tablespoon of peanut butter (90 calories), and 1 tablespoon of olive oil (118 calories) for 560 calories of fat. This remains within the 400-700 calorie recommended consumption.
A well-balanced diet that includes the recommended amount of healthy fats, paired with exercise and the appropriate amount of sleep, will help keep you healthy.
The Bottom Line:
Your body needs both unsaturated and saturated fat in moderation to stay healthy. Remember: fat provides more energy than protein and carbohydrates. If you are consuming roughly 2,000 calories a day, 400-700 of those calories should come from healthy fats!