Dietary Fats: The Most Misunderstood Nutrient


Many of us are familiar with the phrase, “we are what we eat.” If that were the case, eating fat would make us fat, right? Not exactly. Fats are one of the most misunderstood nutrients. This blog puts common misconceptions about fat to rest and reveals how eating fat actually poses several health benefits…

Types of Fat

Before we can discuss how consuming dietary fat will benefit us, we need to discuss the different types of dirty fats. The Harvard School of Public Health’s article Types of Fat  explains that dietary fats are broken down into three groups:

  • Unsaturated Fats
  • Saturated Fats
  • Trans Fats

Unsaturated fats can be broken down even further into the following subcategories:

  • Monounsaturated Fats
  • Polyunsaturated Fats

Our dietary fat intake should be built around unsaturated and saturated fats, trying to avoid trans fats completely. The great news is that a lot of whole foods like eggs, nuts, and olive oil have a mix of unsaturated and saturated fat. A healthy blend of unsaturated and saturated fat in our diet is important and we will learn why later. So, what is the difference? Let’s break down the different types of fat so that we have a better idea of which fats are better for weight loss and which to limit or avoid all together….

Unsaturated Fats

The easiest way to tell whether a fat source is primarily composed of unsaturated fat is by sight. If the fat source is liquid at room temperature, then it is a source of unsaturated fat. The article Foods High in Unsaturated Fat lists several great examples of this type of dietary fats:

  • Peanut Butter (I bet 99.9% of the population could live off of peanut butter, yum!)
  • Some Oils (Canola, Peanut, Safflower, and Sunflower)
  • Fish (contains a special type of unsaturated fat known as omega-3)
  • Avocado
  • Nuts

As you may have noticed, not all of these examples are liquid at room temperature. However, most of them have an oily texture to them. As we discussed earlier, most whole foods have a blend of saturated and unsaturated fats. Because unsaturated fats can be broken down into two subcategories, the majority of our dirty fat intake should be from these sources. The key benefits of consuming these fats include: lowering cholesterol levels, help prevent heart disease, lower inflammation, and more

Saturated Fats

If unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature then saturated fats would be… you guessed it, solid at room temperature! The American Heart Association (AHA) lists these examples of foods that are composed primarily of saturated fats:

  • Fatty Meats (beef, lamb, pork)
  • Skin of Poultry
  • Lard and Cream
  • Cheese and Whole Dairy
  • Baked and Fried Foods

It is recommended that we limit saturated fats as much as possible. Attempt to keep calories from saturated fats less than 10% of total calories for best results. You don’t have to get too caught up on counting calories, just do your best to limit foods high in saturated fats and replace those with foods high in unsaturated fats. By doing this, you will greatly reduce your risk for developing many of the diseases that are common in the United States (diabetes, heart disease).

Trans Fats

The majority of trans fats are developed from the manmade process of heating liquid vegetable oils. This differs from saturated and unsaturated fats which are found in the unprocessed foods that we listed earlier. AHA created the following list of trans fats:

  • Fried Foods
  • Doughnuts
  • Baked Goods (cake, frozen pizza, cookies)

If possible, trans fats should be completely eliminated from our diet. The reason for this is because our body does not process them correctly. So, what that does mean for us? If we can’t process them correctly, they get stored directly as body fat! With that being said, I am sure that you can see why it is considered best practice to avoid these fats completely. The good news about trans fats is that the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has been cracking down on them. As of 2015, artificial trans fats have been banned from the market.

Importance of Dietary Fats

From helping our body absorb nutrients to serving as an energy source, dietary fats serve multiple purposes, an article from MedlinePlus explains. Dietary fats help our body absorb the fat soluble vitamins (A, E, D, and K). Fats also make up part of our cells structure. Considering our bodies are composed entirely of cells, I would consider that one pretty important! Next, they serve as a fuel source. Although carbohydrates are our primary fuel source, we only have a limited supply of them. That limited supply can fuel only 20-30 minutes of hard, physical exercise. The next line of defense? Fats!

The last important factor I want to mention is hormone production. For males and females alike, consuming too few dietary fats will affect your sex hormones, in turn affecting your reproductive processes. Men, consuming too few fats will destroy your levels of testosterone. Fats are the building blocks of testosterone so our body can’t make any with it! Now, don’t go eat 50 hard boiled eggs and think you will look like a professional bodybuilder the next day. Fats are a double edged sword; consuming too few or too many both pose threats to our health.

Summary & Best Practices

As we have learned, there are three types of dietary fats: unsaturated (poly and monounsaturated), saturated, and trans fats. We want to make sure that our dietary fat intake is composed primarily of unsaturated fats, very little saturated fats, and no trans fats if possible (hint: it is possible so just do it). Your total calories from fat should range from 15-30% of your total calories for best body composition results. Some of the best sources of unsaturated fats include peanut butter, some oils, avocado, and nuts. Consuming too many saturated and/or trans fats poses several health risks like developing heart disease or diabetes. Finally, dietary fats play an important role in vitamin absorption, cell structure, and energy/hormone production.

I hope this cleared up a lot of the questions that you may have had about fats. Clearly, they are not the enemy! Still have questions about fats? Check out the related link below!

Related: Clearing Up The Confusion Over Fat [PODCAST]


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