The basics: What is dietary fat?

Fat is a topic that most of us try to avoid. Sadly, in today’s society fat is a black sheep. The shocking truth is: we can not live without it. Actually it’s an essential part of our diet. Therefore stop being scared of fat.

Eating fat doesn’t necessarily mean you gain body fat. In fact, fat isn’t the reason for obesity alone. Sure, it can be a part of the problem, but you have to look at the whole picture.

Fat is the most calorie-dense nutrient with 9 calories per gram (carbs and protein clocking in at 4 calories each). Hence, nowadays some foods are designed and marketed as “fat-free” and we are urged to banish it from our diets.

However, it’s not all bad. The shift to “fat-free” doesn’t implicate that the food is healthier, since we don’t just cut back on the harmful ones but also on the healthy fats.

What do we need it for?

Fat is used to store energy, it helps absorb vitamins and minerals, we need it to build cell membranes and forming hormones. In terms of long-term health you have to focus on fats that are better for you, such as monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and some saturated fats.

Types of fat

Not all fats are created equal, but they have the same amount of calories per gram. What’s really important is to understand the difference between the types of fat.

Trans fats

This is literally the worst variety of fat. Trans fats are a byproduct of a process called hydrogenation, which is used to turn healthy oils into solids to prevent them from becoming rancid. Trans fats can not be found in the wild — only as a human creation.

Eating a diet rich in trans fats increases the amount of LDL (“bad cholesterol”) tremendously and reduces the amount of HDL (“good cholesterol”) in the bloodstream. This may cause inflammation, heart disease, strokes and other chronic diseases.

Trans fat can make food taste better, last longer on grocery store shelves, and are more hazardous for your heart. Just a small amount of trans fat can harm your health. That’s why you should really avoid foods like: cakes, pies and cookies (especially with frosting), margarine (stick or tub), fried fast foods and cream-filled candies.

Saturated fats

Saturated fats are in between good and bad for your wellbeing. Their fatty acids contain no double-bonds, which means the chains are “saturated” in hydrogen.

Common sources are red meat, whole milk, cheese and coconut oil for example. Eating a high amount of saturated fats can increase your total cholesterol and tip the balance toward more LDL. For that reason you should limit the intake to under 10% of your total calories per day. Coconut oil is a special case though — you can consume it safely.

Monounsaturated fats

Monounsaturated fats have two fewer hydrogen atoms than saturated fats, because they have a single carbon-to-carbon double bond. This is the reason why monounsaturated fats stay liquid at room temperature.

Considering monounsaturated fats instead of saturated or trans fats will help maintain healthy cholesterol levels. Good sources of them are olive oil, peanut oil, avocados and nuts in general.

Polyunsaturated fats

Always focus on these essential fats! We need them for normal functioning bodies. Essential means you need to get them through your nutrition. Your body can’t produce them itself (much like protein, unlike carbs).

Polyunsaturated fats are vital for building cell membranes and the covering of nerves, for blood clotting, muscle movement and to help fight inflammations.

Maybe you know omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids, which are the most common types. Eating more healthy fats will reduce harmful LDL and improve your total cholesterol level by lowering triglycerides.
Add fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines and flaxseeds, walnuts, chia seeds, canola oil and unhydrogenated soybean oil to your diet to increase your intake of good fat. Also make sure to consume more omega-3 than omega-6. Too much omega-6 in relation to omega-3 is detrimental to your health, despite being “healthy fats” as mentioned above.

How much fat do you need

Well, that depends on your lifestyle, your health and fitness goals, as well your digestion, activity level and genetics. But to stay healthy and to keep all your hormones work properly you should eat at least 0.5g per kg body weight (or 0.25g per lbs). So a 80kg male should consume at least 40g of healthy fats per day — give or take of course.

Some people might want to consume way more and cut back on carbs, out of personal preference. We’ll cover that in another blog post!

Watch out for labelling

Read the nutrition labels! Claiming the product as reduced-fat on the front label actually means that the item contains 25% less fat per serving than the regular version — it could still be very high in fat, especially in trans fats. Same with light or “lite” products, which means the food contains 50% less fat per serving than the regular version.

Furthermore they often add extra sugar to make up for the missing fat. Again: It’s absolutely necessary to read and understand nutrition labels!

Some healthier food swaps:

  • Cook with monounsaturated oils, like olive oil, walnut oil or coconut oil
  • Choose skim or low-fat fairy products
  • Skip fried foods and choose grilling, baking or roasting instead
  • Limit your intake of fast-food, processed foods, sweets and desserts
  • Replace fattier sauces with mustards, vinegars and lemon juice

Conclusion

We need “good” dietary fat. Among other things, it’s very important for our hormone production. Fats are structural components of some of the most important substances in our body. This is also the reason why some women, who have too little body fat, can experience an intermitted menstruation.

Same with men: following a super-low fat diet can lead to massively decreased testosterone levels, bad mood, sluggishness and even depression.

Instead of skipping on your daily required dietary fat, you should try to cut down the intake of unhealthy fats and rather choose healthy fats.

Enjoy some nut butter and don’t feel guilty!

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