Understanding Fat: The Ultimate Guide to Dietary Fat and Your Health
February 1, 2021
understanding fat types

Understanding fat can feel like an overwhelming challenge.  At first, it looks as though it’s simple enough, until you start reading about the different types of fats, that some are believed to be better for you than others, and that there are specifics regarding the amounts you should be using. Then, once you figure it out, a new study is published saying something completely different.  What are you supposed to do to learn about this important part of nutrition?

We’ve got your back! Understanding fat doesn’t have to be hard or daunting.  Use this ultimate guide to dietary fat requirements and your health.

Understanding Fats and Your Healthy Body

The first step in understanding fats in your diet is to know that despite their bad reputation, they are critical to your health. According to the American Heart Association, we all need healthy fats to complete our nutrition.  The key is not to eat too much of them. 

Over the last handful of decades, the general understanding of fats has become skewed by misguided – though frequently well-meaning – forms of weight loss advice. The number of fat-free products have consistently grown, leading many people to believe that the closer their diet can come to being fat-free, the better.

Science has proven that this is not at all the case. Not for health and not for weight loss.  Understanding fats has taken a new direction, though many of us have yet to take the new lesson. A certain amount of healthy fat every day supports cell growth, is vital to your energy levels, brain health, nervous system, body temperature, nutrient absorption, hormone production and, yes, weight control.  There is no doubt that you need some fat in your diet. 

4 Types of Dietary Fat

There are four main types of dietary fat.  Knowing a bit about each one is important to helping you to understand fats in general.  

The four types of fat in our foods are:

Each of these types of dietary fat have different physical properties.  They may all be fats, but their chemical structures are different.  As a result, they behave differently in our bodies.  This is why there are some types that are often labeled as “bad” while others are seen as “good” or “healthy”.

Understanding Polyunsaturated fats

Polyunsaturated Fat

Polyunsaturated fat is accepted as a healthy fat, according to Harvard Medical School. These fats, when consumed in appropriate amounts, are seen as great for overall health and heart health in particular.  These are essential fats. This means that the body needs them from food in order to be able to keep up everyday functions.  The body cannot make polyunsaturated fat on its own, which is an important part of understanding fats and their impact on our health.

These are critical for building the sheath protecting our nerves as well as for cell membrane building throughout our body.  They’re used for muscle movement, blood clotting and inflammation.

Understanding Polyunsaturated Fats: The Science Stuff

There are two or more double bonds in a polyunsaturated fat’s carbon chain.  There are also two primary kinds of this dietary fat:

  1. Omega-3 fatty acids
  2. Omega-6 fatty acids

The number in their names refers to the distance from the start of the carbon chain before the first double bond occurs.  There are health benefits associated with both types of those fatty acids.

Why Use Polyunsaturated Fats as Your “Good” Fats

Replacing “bad” or “unhealthy” fats with polyunsaturated fat can help to reduce your harmful LDL cholesterol levels over time. It also helps to establish a better overall cholesterol balanced.  Furthermore, when consumed in the right amounts, it can also help to reduce blood triglyceride levels.

By including adequate amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids in your diet, you may be supporting your body in lowering your risk of heart disease and stroke.  Some early research suggests that it may also play a role in treatment of those conditions.  Furthermore, consuming it regularly may help to reduce blood pressure, raise HDL cholesterol, and prevent the development of fatal heart rhythms.

Some evidence cited by Harvard Medical suggests that it can help to reduce rheumatoid arthritis patients’ need for corticosteroid medication.  There is a growing – yet still currently inconclusive – body of evidence that links regular omega-3 consumption with a spectrum of other potential health benefits such as the reduction of dementia risk.  Further research is needed before it is known whether those benefits are indeed associated with that nutrient.

On the other hand, appropriate consumption of Omega-6 fatty acids has been shown to reduce heart disease risk.

What Are Foods Containing Polyunsaturated Fats?

Great sources of polyunsaturated fats in the form of omega-3 fatty acids include:

  • Fatty fish, often cold-water fish, such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel
  • Flaxseeds
  • Canola oil
  • Walnuts
  • Unhydrogenated soybean oil

Great sources of omega-6 fatty acids are vegetable oils such as:

  • Soybean oil
  • Safflower oil
  • Sunflower oil
  • Walnut oil
  • Corn oil
Learning About Monounsaturated Fats

Monounsaturated Fat

Your next step in understanding fats is to look at the monounsaturated variety. These are the types most associated with diets linked with health and longevity, such as the Mediterranean Diet. They are widely consumed in countries and cultures in which heart disease is low.

Understanding Monounsaturated Fats: The Science Stuff

Monounsaturated fats have a single carbon-to-carbon double bond. Because of this molecular structure, it allows two fewer hydrogen atoms to comprise it than is the case with a saturated fat. It also has a bend at its double bond.  This molecular shape translates to dietary fats that are liquid at room temperature. This is a good rule of thumb, as true monounsaturated fats will not come in a solid or spreadable format.

Why Use Monounsaturated Fats as your “Good” Fats

Though there isn’t a specific recommendation for the intake of monounsaturated fat every day, Harvard Medical cites the Institute of Medicine recommendation suggesting that, as much as possible, saturated and trans fat consumption be replaced by monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

What Are Foods Containing Monounsaturated Fats?

Great sources of monounsaturated fat include:

  • Olive oil
  • Canola oil
  • Avocados
  • Canola oil
  • High-oleic safflower oil
  • High-oleic sunflower oil
  • Most nuts
Understanding Saturated Fats

Saturated Fats

There is a lot of controversy surrounding saturated fats and whether or not they should be considered to be healthy. Harvard Medical labels this one as an “in between” option.  It’s not really a healthy option, but it’s not as bad for you as trans fats (which we’ll discuss further down).

Many nutritionists recommend avoiding saturated fats as much as possible.  More recent research suggests that it may not be harmful, provided is consumed in very limited amounts. Either way, both research and nutrition experts agree that the average American diet regularly includes far more saturated fats than is healthy.

Understanding Saturated Fats: The Science Stuff

The term “saturated” in this kind of dietary fat is in reference to the hydrogen atoms that surround the carbon atom.  In this type of fat, the carbon atoms are loaded with as many hydrogen atoms as is possible – that is, the carbon atoms are fully saturated with hydrogen atoms.

Why Should Saturated Fat Intake Be Avoided?

According to Harvard Medical, too much saturated fat in your diet can send your total cholesterol levels upward.  Moreover, it can change the balance of your cholesterol levels so that damaging LDL cholesterol will be more abundant than good HDL cholesterol.  This trend, over time, can cause heart and artery blockages to form. 

As a result, most nutritionists recommend that no more than 10 percent of your daily calories should come from saturated fats.

While many reports have shown a link between saturated fat intake and heart disease, others have been conflicting, meaning that the jury is still out about the nature of the link between the two and how much of the fat would need to be consumed to have a harmful impact.  It’s important to understanding fats to realize that in many areas, our knowledge continues to evolve, so it’s always wise to keep on top of the latest, while maintaining a foundation of what is already known.

Where is Saturated Fat Found in Foods?

Saturated fats are not hard to find in the average American diet.  These are solid at room temperature and several are usually found in any refrigerator or pantry.

These include, among others:

  • Whole milk dairy foods
  • Whole milk
  • Cheese
  • Red meat
  • Bacon grease
  • Coconut oil
  • Many commercially prepared baked foods
  • Many highly processed and fast foods
What are Trans Fats?

Trans Fat

Trans fats are essentially considered to be the ultimate in unhealthy fats.  These are considerably more dangerous than saturated fats and are banned – or are being banned – in many countries. While consuming too much saturated fat can cause your unhealthy LDL cholesterol levels to rise, consuming trans fats causes healthy HDL cholesterol levels to fall while also raising LDL levels. That combination is particularly bad for increasing heart disease risk.

Trans fats are nearly always found in manmade products. They’re used because they’re inexpensive and can extend a package food’s shelf life.  They’re particularly commonplace in shelf-stable baked goods and packaged snacks.

Trans fat consumption should be limited as much as possible.  Ideally, you should not consume any of it if at all possible.  Use the nutrition label on the packaged foods you buy.  Many brands have started eliminating trans fats from their products.  Choose those options whenever possible in place of a product that contains trans fats.

Understanding Fats: The Calorie Content

Understanding fats in your diet isn’t just a matter of knowing which type you’re eating – though that is a good start. It’s also important to make sure you’re choosing the right amount of the healthy choices you make.

Fats are high in calories.  Every gram contains 9 calories.  This means that they add up very quickly.  As a result, even when you’re choosing polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats, it’s still very important to keep your portions within the right size to ensure you’re not overwhelming your body with calories.

Do All Fats Contain the Same Number of Calories?

No matter what the source, the fat itself within it contains 9 calories per gram, says the American Heart Association. No matter the source of your calories, consuming too many of them can contribute to weight control struggles.  If the source of those calories is in the form of saturated or trans fats, this means that with time, you will also place yourself at a higher risk of heart disease and stroke.

If you’re not sure how many calories you’re consuming or how much of your total calories is in the form of fats, use a food calculator to track your daily food intake and understand your nutrient balance.

Are All “Trans Fat-Free” Foods Healthy?

It’s always a good idea to choose foods that do not contain trans fats.  That said, this is not automatically a designation of being a health food.  It’s always important to consider what is in a food, not just what isn’t in it.  Many of the foods that would have contained trans fats, for example, are already not all that good for nutrition.  They’re high in salt, sugar, or saturated fats.  The option without trans fats is definitely better than the one that contained it, but this doesn’t automatically make it a health food.

How to Include Fats in a Healthy Diet

Eating foods containing polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats is absolutely part of a healthy diet, says the American Heart Association. The key is to choose those right fats and to consume them in the right portions.  It’s also important to eat them alongside vegetables, fruits, whole grains and proteins such as legumes, fish, and poultry.  At the same time, it’s always a good idea to keep added sugar intake to a minimum and avoid consuming too much sodium.

Eating a Healthy Balanced Diet

According to the medical experts at the Mayo Clinic, the best way to begin eating a healthier diet is to start by eliminating foods containing trans fats and replacing foods high in saturated fats with those that contain polyunsaturated and monounsaturated forms.

By understanding fats through this supporting information from the Mayo Clinic, you can apply the following tips to bring them into your everyday diet. 

  • Check food labels and read nutrition tables to effectively avoid trans fat. Check to see if trans fats are present and, if so, how much.  Legally, a food with under 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving can label the product as 0 grams on the nutrition table. As a result, it’s important to also look at the ingredient list to see if the term “partially hydrogenated” is included in any of the ingredients. If so, put it back.
  • Choose liquid oils over solid fats. For instance, sauteing veggies in olive oil instead of butter is the better choice.  In baking, choose canola oil over butter or shortening.
  • Make sure you’re getting enough omega-3 fatty acids in your diet by having fish such as salmon, mackerel or sardines as your protein twice per week. Choose broiled or baked fish over fried.
  • Eat your poultry without the skin and choose lean cuts of meat. Trim away visible fat from your meat or poultry before eating it.
  • Choose smart snacks by skipping processed snack foods that are high in saturated fats or that may even contain trans fats. Skip anything that contains fats and choose whole fruits and veggies instead. Make things interesting by adding a dip like homemade hummus.

Remember that a nutrition tracker can be extremely helpful in better understanding your foods.  Most foods are complex, and many contain a combination of different types of fat in different levels. Using a nutrition tracker for a while can help you to get to know the types of foods you eat the most often.  This tool helps you to gradually learn about your food choices. Soon enough, you won’t need it all the time anymore, but it can be very important to discover more about the foods you’re eating.

That will help you to get to know how your foods come together at the end of the day.  That said, it’s important not to overwhelm yourself.  Don’t let yourself get swamped in all the smaller details.  Remember that one food choice won’t make or break your entire wellbeing.  It’s best to do your best to choose unsaturated fats and avoid saturated and trans fats while watching your portions. 

For instance, canola oil contains primarily monounsaturated fat, but it does contain a bit of saturated fat.  It’s still a much better option than an option that is primarily saturated fat.

Avoid Extremes in All Their Forms

One of the best tips you can always follow to ensure that you’re enjoying a healthy, balanced diet using the way you understand fats is to avoid extremes.  Don’t follow a very low-fat diet.  Don’t eat too much fat every day. Avoid trans fats and too many saturated fats.  That said, don’t consume an excessive amount of healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, either. 

Paying attention to your fat consumption for your overall wellness, heart health and weight control is extremely important.  Keep an eye on what you’re eating.  Use a nutrition tracker for a while if you don’t really have a solid idea of what your food choices contain.  Once you build the habit of understanding and balancing your fat intake every day, you’ll find that you’ll do it much more naturally.  Over time, you’ll monitor and balance your meals as a healthy daily habit.

Finally, don’t forget that there is a lot more to healthy nutrition than making sure you consume the right fats in the right amounts.  Pay attention to your overall food intake, focusing on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and lean proteins, too.

Let the USDA My Plate Recommendations Guide Your Choices

As you incorporate healthy fats into your overall diet, use My Plate to help guide your overall choices.  That way, you’ll balance the types of nutrients you’re getting overall in a day or week.  These recommendations also remind you to use the rule of thumb of choosing fats in the form of oils that are liquids at room temperature over those that are solids.  It also reminds you to eat fish a couple of times per week to make sure you enjoy omega-3 fatty acids that your body needs.

My Plate recommends incorporating certain foods in your life on a regular basis.  These include:

  • Fatty (cold water) fish
  • Olives
  • Nuts
  • Avocados

It reminds you to be cautious against the use of palm oil, coconut oil, and palm kernel oil as they are plant oils but are higher in saturated fats than other options such as olive oil or canola.

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