There is a common misconception that all dietary fats are bad for health and fat intake should be reduced as much as possible.
The truth is, not all dietary fats are alike. In fact, our body needs certain dietary fats for its normal function.
What is a dietary fat?
Fats found in foods are known as dietary fats. They are one of the three essential macronutrients required in large quantities and are essential for the proper functioning of the body. The other two essential macronutrients we need in large quantities are proteins and carbohydrates.
Dietary fats supply the body with clariores or energy and it is recommended to get 20-30% total calories intake through fats.
Why do we need fat in our diet?
Almost everyone is aware of the negative effects of excessive intake of fat, i.e. weight gain and increased risk of heart diseases, but a much lesser known fact is that we need fats in order to maintain our health and it is not possible to fully remove fat intake from our diets without serious health consequences.
What is the use of fat in our body?
Energy: Fats are the richest source of energy for our body. Gram for gram, fat provide 9 calories of energy per gram, while proteins and carbohydrates can provide just 4 calories per gram each.
Absorbing vitamins: Some essential vitamins like A, D, E and K are fat soluble vitamins. Therefore, fat is necessary for absorbing these essential vitamins.
Protection: Fats provide protective cushioning for vital organs like heart, kidneys and intestines. Therefore, fats from these areas are the last to be utilized in times of starvation or crisis.
Beautiful Healthy Skin: Fats help in maintaining a health skin and prevent them from getting dry, wrinkled or inflamed. They also act as an insulation for the body and help in maintaining proper body temperature.
Growth: Fats are required for normal growth and development. They are essential in cell membrane formation and they are vital for the function of almost every cell in the human body. They also help in making hormones.
What are the types of dietary fat?
Different types of dietary fats are found in various proportions in most foods we eat. There are four main types of dietary fats are:
- Saturated fats
- Trans fats
- Monounsaturated fats
- Polyunsaturated fats
Dietary fats that are bad for health are Saturated fats and Trans fats. On the other hand, Monounsaturated fats and Polyunsaturated fats are good for health.
It is important to note that all types of dietary fats are rich in calories (9 calories per gram). Good dietary fats, if consumed in excesses can also lead to weight gain.
To maintain a healthy weight and have a healthy body, it is important to consume more good dietary fats in proportion to bad dietary fats while keeping the overall calorie intake in the form of fats less than 30% of your daily calorie intake.
4 Types of Dietary Fats
Let’s take a closer look at each type of dietary fat
Types of fats we need to avoid:
Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and are also known as animal fat because animal products are a high in saturated fats. Red meat and dairy products are high in saturated fats. Tropical oils like coconut oil, palm oil and cocoa butter are also high in saturated fats.
Saturated fat is known as a bad dietary fat because it can increase the "bad" cholesterol or Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels in your blood.
High levels of LDL in blood can increase the possibility of them sticking to the walls of the blood vessels and over time the buildup can lead to reduced blood flow through the effected blood vessels. This can lead to heart attacks or strokes.
A healthy diet should consist of less than 10% of daily calories derived directly from saturated fats.
Tips to reduce saturated fat intake
- Butter or margarine should be replaced with olive oil
- Coconut oil, Palm oil should be replaced with canola or olive oil
- Milk, Cheese and Cream should be replaced with low fat or fat free versions
- Red Meat should be replaced with Poultry without the skin or fish
Trans fatty acids or trans fats are made by adding hydrogen atoms (hydrogenation) to unsaturated fats (liquid oil) like vegetable oils to turn them into solid fats. Usually these are artificially produced fats though some occur naturally in food.
Trans fats also have a longer shelf life and improve the taste of food. They can be found in a wide variety of processed foods including fast foods. Margarine is a rich source of trans fat.
It was popularized with good intentions to reduce the intake of saturated fats like butter. Later it became evident that trans-fat is by far one of the worst kinds of dietary fat because it can decrease “good” cholesterol or High-density lipoprotein (HDL) and increase the "bad" cholesterol or Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels in your blood.
There is also research evidence suggesting that high intake of trans fat can increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes mellitus by almost 40% in women.
Since 2006, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires food manufactures mention the amount of trans fat in the list of ingredients. A step further, by 2018 FDA mandates that all food manufacturers stop using trans-fat completely.
Tips to reduce trans fats intake
Avoiding trans-fat from diet can be a challenge for many, since many commercially produced foods are laden with trans-fat. The good news is that many manufacturers and fast-food chains has switched to safer types of fats.
Keep an eye on the ingredients label and try to reduce trans-fat intake gradually over time by replacing them with healthier alternatives.
Avoid or reduce the following foods:
- Fast food, fried foods, frozen foods, Ice cream, frostings, Microwave Popcorn
- Cake mixes, pancake mixes, waffle mixes, nondairy creamers, donuts, muffins
- Margarine, butter or non-natural peanut butter
- Any food with shortening, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated ingredients.
A product that is labeled as having 0 grams trans-fat must be clean, right?
The simple answer is no! FDA allows food products to be labeled as having 0 grams of trans fat if they have less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. Increase the frequency of eating such foods and the numbers can add up quickly.
Now let’s look into some good dietary fats:
Monounsaturated fats are considered as good fats because they can increase “good” cholesterol or High-density lipoprotein (HDL) and decrease the "bad" cholesterol or Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels in your blood.
In order to see positive health benefits, it is important to replace bad fats with good fats while keeping the overall fat intake well within the recommended range.
Tips to increase your monounsaturated fats intake
- For cooking and frying replace butter, margarines, coconut oil or palm oil with Olive Oil, Canola Oil, Sunflower Oil or Peanut Oil.
- Replace you flavored nuts and processed snacks with non-processed nuts like almonds, cashews, hazelnuts.
- For you breakfast, replace butter with peanut butter.
Polyunsaturated fats are also considered healthy fats and are helpful in lowering LDL in your blood. It is commonly found in sea foods and vegetable oils like Canola oil, Corn oil, Cottonseed oil, Soybean oil, Sunflower oil, Flaxseed oils.
Two types of polyunsaturated fats:
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Found in some types of fatty fish, seems to have beneficial effects in improving heart health and reducing the risk of developing coronary artery disease.
- Omega-6 fatty acids: Are required for healthy skin and hair and also for normal growth and development.
Omega-3 fatty acids and Omega-6 fatty acids are Essential Fatty Acids (EFA)
Read more: EFA
Tips to increase your Omega-3 fatty acids intake, include:
- For cooking and frying use canola oil, flaxseed oil.
- Sea foods like Tuna, Trout, Mackerel, Halibut, Herring, Salmon, Sardines.
- Green leafy vegetables, Nuts (walnuts) and Legumes