Fat-free foods are a hot commodity in the weight loss market. Since fat-rich foods tend to be calorie-dense, people who are trying to lose weight or maintain a weight loss often snub them. This is not a good idea! Truth is, dietary fat is actually a vital nutrient and a necessary component of a healthy balanced diet.
Still, different types of fat are contained in a wide variety of foods and they’re not all created equal. While certain fats can reduce the risk of many chronic diseases others can be quite hazardous to your health. Therefore, to reap maximum benefits, regular consumption of the right types of dietary fat is absolutely essential.
The Real Skinny on Dietary Fat
Dietary fat is a macronutrient that’s primarily responsible for helping the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K). It is composed of numerous compounds called fatty acids, two of which (alpha-linolenic acid and linoleic acid) are termed “essential” because they are not produced by the body and must be obtained through the diet.
Compared to other macronutrients (carbohydrates and protein), dietary fat is particularly rich in calories. In fact, every gram of fat yields about nine calories while carbohydrates and protein only yield four calories per gram. So, a food with 10 grams of fat and 10 grams of carbohydrates would contain a whopping 90 calories from fat but only 40 from carbs.
From this example, it’s obvious that fat-rich foods can really drive up calorie counts! But, at the end of the day, the body still needs dietary fat—It’s all about the type of fat.
Different Types of Dietary Fat
Dietary fat is typically comprised of some combination of saturated fat and unsaturated fat. Unsaturated fat is further classified as monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fat (omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids). Foods that contain mostly unsaturated fat are typically liquid at room temperature while those containing mostly saturated fat are generally solid.
In addition to naturally occurring saturated and unsaturated fats, there are manmade fats called trans fats (or trans fatty acids) that are created during food processing. Trans fats are produced when unsaturated fats undergo a chemical transformation called hydrogenation that converts them into saturated fats. The different types of fats have distinct structural characteristics and affect your health differently.
“Good” Fats Versus “Bad” Fats
For optimal health, it’s best to consume foods rich in “healthy” fats while limiting your intake of “unhealthy” fats. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are generally considered healthy, as they can lower your risk of chronic diseases (obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes) while saturated and trans fats are considered unhealthy, as they’ve been associated with increased risk.
Now, while saturated fats are classified as unhealthy, I’d argue that they are not at all as bad as those manmade trans fats.
In fact, day-to-day consumption of foods comprised of trans fats, empty carbohydrates added sugars, and other subpar ingredients is much more of a contributor to disease and overall poor health than saturated fats could ever be. When consuming saturated fat-rich foods, it’s all about moderation as opposed to elimination but food sources of trans fats should just be avoided.
Saturated fats are naturally housed in meats, full-fat dairy products and oils (coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils) while trans fats are present in a variety of processed foods including snack foods, fried foods, and many salad dressings. On the flip side, healthy monounsaturated fats can be found in a variety of plant-based foods like olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds.
Omega-3 fatty acids are contained in many common foods like oily fish (salmon, trout and tuna), walnuts, flaxseeds and soy products while potent sources of omega-6 fatty acids include nuts, seeds and most vegetable oils. When it comes to polyunsaturated fats, a good rule of thumb is to balance your intake of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids to a ratio between 1:1 and 4:1, as excessive consumption of the former has been linked to inflammation.
How Much Dietary Fat You Need
Since all food sources of dietary fat are typically high in calories, it’s important to consume them in moderate amounts in order to avoid unnecessary weight gain and other health problems. The United States Food and Drug Administration recommends that 25-30 percent of your daily calories come from fat of which no more than 7-10 percent is comprised of saturated fat. Trans fats should be avoided whenever possible.
At the very least, following these guidelines will help you meet the minimal requirements for dietary fat in a healthy way. However, it’s important to understand that these recommendations are general guidelines and not necessarily global standards. In fact, many countries follow diets with relatively higher intakes of dietary fat without added weight gain or health risks.
For instance, people in Mediterranean regions are known to take in daily averages of 35-40 percent of calories as fat but their diets tend to be especially rich in foods like nuts, avocados and olive oil. Interestingly enough their diets are also relatively high in saturated fats but much lower in added sugars and virtually devoid of trans fats.
At the end of the day, it’s all about the overall quality of your diet and whether or not you’re meeting, as opposed to overshooting, your daily calorie requirement.
Believe it or not, regular consumption of dietary fat is essential for disease prevention, weight management and overall good health. In addition, fat gives unique flavor, texture and aroma to foods, which makes them more appealing and enjoyable. To reap full benefits, make an effort to incorporate a variety of healthy fat rich foods into your everyday diet while limiting your consumption of those deemed unhealthy.
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Disclaimer: The information provided is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Any reader who is concerned about his or her health should contact a physician for advice.