Health enthusiasts and weight loss seekers have a tendency to shun fatty foods due to their relatively high calorie counts. This is one of the reasons why “fat-free” foods are such a hot commodity in the health food industry and weight loss market. But contrary to popular belief, in spite of the relatively high calorie content of fatty foods, eating them won’t inherently cause weight gain or poor health.
Truth is, dietary fat is an extremely vital nutrient as well as a necessary component of a healthy balanced diet.
Now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that different types of fats are housed in different foods—And, these fats aren’t all created equal. While certain fats promote weight loss and can help to reduce your risk of chronic diseases, others trigger weight gain and can be extremely hazardous to your health. Here I’ll delve into the ins and outs of dietary fat to make it easier for you to separate the good from the bad.
Dietary fat is an extremely vital nutrient as well as a necessary component of a healthy balanced diet.
The Real Skinny on Dietary Fat
In and of itself, dietary fat is an essential 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, again, the actual effects of these fats on the body are contingent on the type.
Different Types of Dietary Fat
Dietary fat is generally comprised of some combination of saturated and unsaturated fat. Unsaturated fat can be further classified as monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fat, the latter of which includes omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Foods containing mostly unsaturated fat are typically liquid at room temperature while those largely comprised of saturated fat tend to be more solid.
In addition to naturally occurring saturated and unsaturated fats, there are also man-made fats called trans fats (or trans fatty acids), which are artificially created during food processing. Trans fats are produced when unsaturated fats undergo a chemical transformation called hydrogenation that converts them into saturated fats.
Due to the overall unique composition of unsaturated, saturated and trans fats, each can affect your health differently. Hence, the general labeling of fats as either “good” or “bad” in terms of nutrition.
“Good” Versus “Bad” Fats
Obviously, it’s best to consume foods rich in “good” or “healthy” fats while also limiting your intake of “bad” or “unhealthy” fats. But which is which, and why? Simply put, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are generally considered to be the ‘good’ ones, as these fats have been linked to a lower risk of numerous chronic diseases.
When consumed in sensible amounts, these fats specifically help remove excess stored fat and cholesterol from the body. Such effects greatly support weight maintenance and heart health.
Due to the overall unique composition of unsaturated, saturated and trans fats, each can affect your health differently.
Monounsaturated fats can be found in a variety of plant-based foods like olive oil, avocado, nuts, and seeds. Omega-3 fatty acids are largely housed in oily fish (salmon, trout and tuna), walnuts, flaxseeds, and whole soy foods. Potent sources of omega-6 fatty acids include nuts, seeds, and most vegetable oils.
When it comes to polyunsaturated fats, it’s best 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 latter has been linked to body-wide inflammation, which can actually increase chronic disease risk.
Interestingly, the average ratio of most Americans is somewhere between 10:1 and 20:1, which is one of the reasons why diet-linked chronic diseases have become so widespread.
And then there are, saturated and trans fats, which are typically viewed as the ‘bad’ ones. Saturated fats are naturally housed in meats, full-fat dairy foods and oils (coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils) while trans fats are largely present in a variety of processed foods including snack foods, fried foods, and many salad dressings.
I’ll be the first to say that the ‘bad’ label on trans fats is truly warranted, as these fats are man-made, completely artificial, and can wreak absolute havoc in the body.
However, saturated fats are a tad bit different.
While often associated with heart disease and high blood pressure, in and of themselves, saturated fats aren’t necessarily bad. Problems arise when they’re consumed in very large quantities and when excess consumption is coupled with very high intakes of omega-6 relative to omega-3 fatty acids.
As such, when it comes to consuming foods rich in saturated fats, it’s more about practicing moderation and maintaining an overall healthy diet.
How Much Dietary Fat You Need
Since all food sources of dietary fat are typically high in calories, obviously, it’s important to be mindful of your overall intake. The United States Food and Drug Administration recommends that 25-30% of your daily calories come from fat of which no more than 7-10% is comprised of saturated fat. Trans fats should be avoided whenever possible.
When it comes to consumption of fatty foods, 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.
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% of calories as fat; but their diets tend to be especially rich in omega-3-rich foods like nuts, avocados and olive oil as opposed to omega-6-dense foods. Their diets also tend to be relatively high in saturated fats but much lower in added sugars and virtually devoid of trans fats.
Regular consumption of dietary fat is undoubtedly essential for chronic disease prevention, weight management, and overall good health. But, at the end of the day, when it comes to consumption of fatty foods, 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.