When it comes to fat intake, there are two common viewpoints.
The first — and probably most common — is that dietary fat is bad for us. It’ll make us fat, clog our arteries, and eventually cause a heart attack.
The second viewpoint has gained popularity more recently with the rise of the Keto Diet. People that fall into this camp believe that fat should be eaten liberally, that it should make up the bulk of our daily calories, and that if we eat a lot of it, it’ll make us leaner and healthier.
With all of the conflicting information out there, it’s no wonder so many people are confused.
If you’ve ever wondered about what dietary fats are, which fats are good for you and which ones aren’t, why healthy fats are important, or how much you actually need, then this article is for you.
This simple guide will answer all of your questions about dietary fat and help you personalize your daily needs.
What are dietary fats?
**Warning: You may experience flashbacks from high school organic chemistry while reading this section.**
Fats are organic molecules made up of carbon and hydrogen joined together in long chains called hydrocarbons.
These molecules can be structured in various ways creating different types of fats each with unique properties — some healthy and some unhealthy.
There are four primary types of dietary fats:
Saturated fats contain only single bonds. Each carbon has two hydrogens, so the chain is said to be “saturated” with hydrogens. This structure makes the fatty acid chain more rigid, so saturated fats are solid at room temperature.
Saturated fats have gotten a bad rap over the years mostly because of poorly-executed or misinterpreted research. But there is actually very little evidence suggesting that a moderate saturated fat intake has any negative impact on our health whatsoever.
In fact, saturated fats play an important role in structuring our cell membranes. Certain saturated fats are also involved in energy metabolism, immune function, intestinal health and metabolic health.
Foods higher in saturated fat include beef, pork, lamb, butter, coconut, cacao, and high-fat cheeses. Most healthy people can consume a moderate amount of saturated fat and not experience any increase in chronic disease risk, so there’s no need to avoid these foods.
Keep in mind that just because research shows that saturated fat is healthy in moderate quantities, it doesn’t mean you should be adding hunks of coconut oil or sticks of butter to your food (or coffee #sorrynotsorry). Doing so probably won’t benefit your blood panels or your waistline in the long run.
Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) have one double bond, which makes the structure a bit more fluid and flexible. MUFAs are liquid at room temperature but solidify if they’re refrigerated.
MUFAs are found many whole foods including olives and olive oil, avocados and avocado oil, peanuts, sesame seeds and tahini, almonds, and macadamia nuts. Many animal foods — including beef, pork, and egg yolks are high in MUFAs as well.
Monounsaturated fats have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, insulin resistance, inflammation and certain types of cancer. They may even help keep us maintain a lean physique.
Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) contain two or more double bonds, making them liquid even at cooler temperatures.
The two most commonly discussed PUFAs are omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-6s are found primarily in nuts, seeds, cold-pressed seed oils, and grain-fed animal fats. Omega-3s are found in fatty fish, certain nuts and seeds, grass-fed animal fats and free-range egg yolks.
Humans evolved eating a diet consisting of whole foods from a variety of sources with a relatively even distribution of MUFA, PUFA and saturated fats. Scientists estimate that the diets of our hunter-gatherer ancestors had an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of about 1 to 1.
Nowadays, that ratio is estimated to be about 16 to 1. It's way out of balance because much of our omega-6 and saturated fat intake comes from processed fat sources rather than whole foods.
Trans fats are created in an industrial process that forces hydrogen into vegetable or seed oils to make them more solid and to extend shelf life.
Trans fats are primarily found in processed foods, frozen entrees, shelf-stable baked goods, margarine, chips, and fried or battered foods.
These fats are known to cause serious health issues — like increased LDL (bad cholesterol), decreased HDL (good cholesterol), increased risk of cardiovascular disease, and increased risk of type-2 diabetes — when consumed regularly
There is no amount of processed trans fat consumption that is recognized as safe, so do your best to minimize your intake.
Some foods — like dairy and beef — contain naturally occurring trans fats. But research has show that these ones don’t have the same negative health effects as the manufactured ones.
When reading labels, look for terms like partially hydrogenated, vegetable shortening, monoglycerides, or diglycerides because they tell you that there are trans fats in the product.
It’s also important to know that just because a processed food says “trans fat free” or “0 trans fats” on the label doesn’t necessarily mean that the food is free from trans fats. Food manufacturers are allowed to label a product “trans fat free” if there is less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving.
What do dietary fats do in our bodies?
A lot of people are afraid to eat fats because they think that eating fat will make them fat or that it will lead to other nasty things like clogged arteries, cardiovascular disease and heart attack.
But this simply isn’t true. Especially if we focus on eating the right kinds of fat.
Not all of the fat we eat gets stored as body fat. Our bodies use the healthy fats we eat for other important functions, like:
- Producing hormones
- Forming cell membranes
- Producing fat-based tissues like our brains and the myelin sheath that insulates our spinal chord and nerves.
Fat can also powerfully influence how our cells communicate and interact. They can affect signalling molecules that influence blood vessel constriction, blood clotting, pain, inflammation, airway constriction and more.
And because our brains are fat-based, changes in fat composition can affect how nerve signals are transmitted. This, in turn, can affect our moods, mental health, brain function, and longevity.
Not only that, healthy fats can also help us get stronger, leaner and healthier because they…
- Help us build muscle.
- Speed our workout recovery.
- Help us absorb vitamins A, D, E and K.
- Help us maintain healthy hormone levels.
- Make our meals more satisfying.
But not all fats are created equal, only ‘healthy fats’ provide these awesome benefits.
Which fats are healthy and which are unhealthy?
You may have already gleaned this from the “what are dietary fats?” section above, but I’ll go over it briefly anyways…
Healthy fats are the ones that are naturally occurring and minimally processed. They are either whole foods or they’ve simply been pressed or ground.
When we eat healthy fats we feel good, perform well, and recover quickly.
Examples of healthy fats include:
- Minimally processed oils (e.g olive, avocado, coconut, flax, etc.)
- Nuts (e.g. almonds, cashews, walnuts, pecans, peanuts, etc.)
- Seeds (e.g. pumpkin, chia, flax, hemp, sunflower, etc.)
- Natural nut and seed butters (i.e. the ones that list only one ingredient on the label - the nut or seed that was ground to make it.)
- Wild caught fatty fish (e.g. salmon, herring, sardines, mackerel, etc.)
- Whole eggs
- Grass-fed meat
Unhealthy fats — on the other hand — don’t occur naturally in the foods that they’re found in. They’re created through an industrial process.
These are the fats that we should try to eat less of because they have negative health effects, they increase inflammation, and they can increase our risk of cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes and certain types of cancer.
Unhealthy fats are found in processed foods and industrial seed oils, like:
- Corn, cottonseed, safflower, soybean, and sunflower oils
- Chips and crackers
- Frozen entrees
- Fried and battered foods
- Shelf-stable baked goods
How much fat should we eat?
There isn’t really a one-size-fits-all guideline for fat consumption, but there are minimums that women need to hit. At a bare minimum, premenopausal women should get 20% of their total daily calories from fat.
From there, the amount of fat you need depends on your overall caloric needs, health and fitness goals, and food preferences. Some people don’t feel satisfied after a low fat meal, while others have digestive issues if they eat too much fat at once.
There’s no “perfect” amount of fat to eat.
From my experience, I’ve found that most of my female clients do best on a diet that contains between 30- to 50-percent of their calories from fat.
I typically recommend that women start by including one thumb-sized serving of healthy fat at each meal and then adjust their intake as necessary by monitoring the following signs and symptoms…
If you’re not getting enough fat in your diet, you might experience:
- Constant hunger, even after eating
- Poor mood, anxiety or depression
- Dry skin and hair
- Low estrogen, progesterone or testosterone
- Low body temperature
- Poor blood sugar regulation
- Irregular periods or amenorrhea
- Frequent sickness
- Unintentional weight loss or weight gain (depending on overall caloric intake)
If you’re getting too much fat in your diet, you might experience:
- Unintentional weight gain
- Diarrhea or loos stools
- Abdominal pain or cramping
- Increased cholesterol
- Inflammation (especially if your diet is high in trans fats)
Summary and Recommendations
The take home message here is that there’s no reason to avoid dietary fat, especially the ones that we get from whole foods. There’s nothing special about very high fat diets either.
Eat the amount of fat that helps you look, feel and perform your best by choosing a variety of whole, unprocessed sources. These include nuts, seeds, fish, unprocessed oils, grass-fed meats, eggs, olives, avocados, coconut and cacao.
At the same time, try to reduce your consumption of industrially processed or factory farmed foods that contain unhealthy fats.
Keep it simple, don’t worry too much about exact grams or percentages. Start by including one thumb-sized serving at each meal and then adjust your intake as needed.
Experiment with different amounts of fat to figure out what works best for you and your goals.
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