Nutrition by Number: Understanding Fat and Saturated Fat
Nutrition
Morgan Medeiros MSc
April 24, 2016
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understanding fat typesThe Numbers: 25-35% (% daily Calories from fat), 7% (maximum recommended Calories from Saturated Fat), 0 (exclude trans fat wherever possible)

It seems that dietary advice on fat consumption is constantly changing, which can be confusing and frustrating for consumers, to say the least. To make things even more complicated, all fats are not created equal when it comes to heart health. Sure, all fat (be it a healthy or unhealthy fat) contains 9 calories per gram- that means whether you’re choosing butter or olive oil, the effect on your weight is the same.

The effect on your heart, however? Far more complex. But let’s simplify this, shall we?

After all, regardless of what we’d like to think the amount of fat (and the type of fat) we consume really does matter. While you might not think your fat consumption is a problem, it doesn’t hurt to take another look.

Remember that fats are present in more foods than you may realize; while butter, oil, and creamy dressings are notoriously high in fat content, packaged and prepared foods (snacks, baking mixes, frozen and prepared meals, restaurant foods) and even “healthy” fats (peanut butter, nuts, and avocado) can contain just as much fat and just as many Calories as the blob of butter oozing atop a baked potato.

Fat is the most Calorically dense nutrient we consume- that means that even seemingly small amounts of it (that aforementioned butter pat, for example) contain far more Calories than we’d like to admit. It’s tempting to pile on healthy fats, especially thanks to all of the super-positive attention they receive in the press. Alas- sometimes it’s easier to delude ourselves into thinking that what we’re doing is healthy than it is to make the change we desperately need.

The truth is that health is all about balance: just enough, but not too much- of all things. Aside from leafy green vegetables, the overwhelming majority of foods we consume need to be consumed in moderation, period- and that’s true of healthy fats as well.

There are four types of fat that we regularly encounter and consume in the modern world- two are considered healthy fats, and two are considered unhealthy fats. Furthermore, between those two unhealthy fats, one is considered to be exponentially more dangerous.

Four Types of Dietary Fat

1. Polyunsaturated Fat (Healthy Fat). Polyunsaturated Fats are beneficial to heart health, and are found predominantly in cold water fish (salmon, mackerel, trout) and plant-based oils, including sesame and soybean oil.

2. Monounsaturated Fat (Healthy Fat). When eaten in moderation, monounsaturated fats have been shown to have a positive impact on heart health. Monounsaturated fats are those found in nuts, and in liquid, plant-based oils, including olive oil and canola oil.

3. Saturated Fat (Unhealthy Fat). Saturated fat can increase “bad” LDL cholesterol, increasing your risk for high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart attack, heart disease, stroke, and early death. Saturated fat is found plentifully in packaged foods, full-fat dairy (butter, cheese, ice cream, etc), and fats that are solid at room temperature, including butter, shortening, lard, etc.

4. Trans fat (Very Unhealthy Fat). While both trans and saturated fats are considered to be unhealthy fats, trans fats are particularly dangerous. While saturated fat can increase “bad” LDL cholesterol, trans fat can reduce “good” HDL cholesterol (you want that number to be higher) and increase “bad” LDL cholesterol (you want that number to be lower). This combinatory effect is a heart disease double whammy. Trans fat is predominantly a man-made fat created to extend the shelf life of packaged foods- thus, it is found plentifully in bakery items, packaged snacks, and other shelf-stable products.

So how much should you consume? And of what?

While fat recommendations can be very individual (those at heightened risk should talk to their doctor for more precise recommendations), the American Heart Association recommends that Americans over age two limit fat consumption to 25-35% total Calories, with saturated fat accounting for no more than 7% of that consumption. Limit trans fat consumption wherever possible, and avoid it entirely if you can. So what does that work out to, in grams?

Fat contains 9 Calories per gram. So for someone consuming 2000 Calories each day, that works out to about 55- 77 grams daily fat, with less than 16 of those grams contributed by saturated fat.

Morgan Medeiros is a certified nutritionist, holding a both a Bachelor and Master’s Degree in Clinical Nutrition. Morgan completed her undergraduate education at Central Washington University, and her graduate education at Northeastern University. During her time as a graduate student, Morgan focused her area of expertise in health education, weight management, and behavioral change. Morgan has experience working in areas of nutritional neuroscience and disease prevention, obesity prevention, and weight loss. Morgan also works in areas of nutritional analysis and menu labeling for restaurants, where she is able to creatively bridge her interest in food culture and health education. In her free time, Morgan enjoys traveling, reading, writing, running, and spending time with her family and friends (including- most importantly- her dog, Clyde).

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