Fat - The Big Picture
Let’s talk about fat. The kind you eat every single day. Though fat has had a bad reputation in the past, it recently seems to be receiving a great deal of praise – and it should! Fat is a dietary component required for the body to function properly. It promotes cell growth, supports maintenance of your body’s temperature, and provides a source of energy. Perhaps one of its most important roles is facilitating the absorption of nutrients.
Let me explain.
Your intestines have the exciting job of absorbing nutrients you eat so they can be used in your body. Some of those nutrients, especially vitamins A, D, E and K, require fat to be present in order for your intestines to absorb them.
As you can tell, fat is clearly not your enemy. For most people, 20% to 35% of your daily calories should come from fat (keep in mind no diet is one-size-fits-all). For someone eating 2000 calories per day, this is approximately 45g to 75g of fat. However, there are good ways and not-so-good ways to include fat into your diet.
I’ll break it down for you. When you look at a Nutrition Facts label, you will find a Total Fat category. This tells you exactly how many grams of fat are in one serving of that food. Sometimes underneath the Total Fat category, the exact types of fat may be listed. There are four types of dietary fat out there:
1) Saturated Fat – typically comes from animal sources and tends to be solid at room temperature (think butter, lard, fat attached to pieces of meat/poultry, and fat found in milk or cheese). While they are not harmful in moderation, too much can raise your ‘bad’ cholesterol. Plant-based saturated fats like coconut or palm oil also raise your ‘bad’ cholesterol, but may also raise your ‘good’ cholesterol. This makes them just a slightly better choice than animal sources of saturated fat.
Nutrition Technique: Include saturated fat in limited quantities. Read your nutrition facts label and shoot for less than 10% of calories from saturated fat per day. For someone eating a 2000-calorie diet, that means less than 22g. If you enjoy it, coconut oil can be a better choice of saturated fat than animal sources.
2) Trans Fat – in the American diet primarily comes from something called “partially hydrogenated oils”. If you’ve heard of them before, they were likely being criticized in the news. Partially hydrogenated oils are vegetable oils modified to act as solid fats and are used in fast food and highly processed snacks to enhance flavor and increase shelf life. While that aspect may sound appealing, these fats cause tremendous harm to your body, increasing your ‘bad’ cholesterol and decreasing your ‘good’ cholesterol. They ultimately increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
Nutrition Technique: stay FAR AWAY from these fats at all costs. Read that nutrition facts label and shoot for 0g per day.
3) Monounsaturated Fat – can be found in olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, avocados, peanut butter, some nuts, and seeds. They tend to be liquid at room temperature, but may start to solidify when cold. The best part? They can help lower your ‘bad’ cholesterol AND increase your ‘good’ cholesterol! Yay!
Nutrition Technique: try to replace any saturated or trans fats with monounsaturated fats whenever possible. For example, dipping your bread in olive oil instead of spreading it with butter can help improve your cholesterol levels.
4) Polyunsaturated Fat – is found in soybean oil, corn oil, walnuts, pine and pumpkin seeds, and flax. Omega-3 fatty acids are one type of polyunsaturated fat found in high amounts in seafood, walnuts, and flax.
Nutrition Technique: try to replace saturated or trans fats with polyunsaturated fat whenever possible. For example, try replacing one meat dish per week with tofu or salmon. Try to eat two 4oz servings of seafood per week to maximize the benefits of omega-3.
Phew! Easy peasy, right?
Here’s your take-home Nutrition Technique: avoid trans fat like the plague, limit saturated fat, opting for the healthier plant-based version if you enjoy it, and always go for the unsaturated fats with special focus on omega-3s.
Get out there and read those labels!
Amy Jones, MS, RDN, LD