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If you’ve ever wondered, “Is fat bad for you?” or felt confused about this hugely misunderstood macronutrient, join the club! The mixed messages surrounding the different kinds of fats found in our food – and their effects on our health – have prevailed for decades, and divergent opinions persist to this day.
As time has passed, however, researchers have discovered nuances between the different types of fats that have provided insight into how this macronutrient (an essential nutrient needed in large quantities, the other two being carbohydrates and protein) behaves in our bodies, and the results are fascinating.
Once seen as the evil villain of the macros, fat is now understood to play an essential role in health. Not only does it help you properly absorb vitamins and minerals, it provides energy, comprises your cell membranes, is integral to your immune system and inflammatory responses, and keeps your nerves and brain working properly. In fact, your brain is nearly 60% fat! Needless to say, it’s extremely important that you consume fat in your diet. (Source)
In this article we’ll help you sort through the confusion to better understand the different types of dietary fats, their actions in the body, and how much and what types of fat you should be eating for optimal health.
Every Cell in Our Body Relies on Fat
Though dietary fat is often discussed in the context of cardiovascular health, the truth is that it’s important to every aspect of health.
Your body is composed of trillions of cells (yes, you read that right!), each playing an important role in keeping your bodily systems functioning properly. And each and every one of these cells is encased in a membrane that is largely made up of lipids, or fats. This cell membrane is not only responsible for protecting the inner workings of the cell, it also contains receptors and channels that allow nutrients and other important molecules to enter the cell, while allowing cellular waste to exit. A healthy cell membrane requires a proper intake of dietary fat, especially omega-3 fatty acids. (Source, Source)
A healthy intake of fat is so important to health, in fact, that nutritional healing protocols like the autoimmune protocol (AIP) diet emphasize it heavily. Studies have shown that fatty acids directly affect autoimmunity and can either inhibit or exacerbate autoimmune diseases depending on a multitude of factors. It’s important for people suffering from an autoimmune disease to work closely with a team of health experts to create a customized eating plan tailored to their specific condition and needs. (Source, Source)
Types of Dietary Fat
There are two major categories of fats — saturated and unsaturated — and most fat-containing foods have a combination of both in varying degrees.
Saturated fats (sometimes abbreviated SFAs) are those that are solid at room temperature and are mostly found in meat and dairy products. Some of the most well known examples are animal proteins, butter, cream, lard, and cheese. There are several plant-based sources as well, including coconut and palm oil.
Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, are liquid at room temperature — they’re most often found in plant-based foods and oils such as nuts, seeds, vegetable oils (such as olive, avocado, canola, and sunflower oil), avocados, flaxseeds, to name a few. Within this category are two types of unsaturated fats: monounsaturated (MUFA) and polyunsaturated (PUFA) fats. Polyunsaturated fats are further broken down into omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, which according to current recommendations should be consumed in a balanced ratio of 3:1 to 1:1 for optimal health. The omega-6/omega-3 ratio in the standard American diet — high in processed foods and refined vegetable oils — can skew as high as 16:1, which may be detrimental to health. (Source)
Trans fats also fall into the unsaturated fat category and can occur in small amounts naturally (mostly in meat or dairy products), but are most often artificially manufactured to be solid at room temperature — more on that below!
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How Fats Affect Our Health
There’s no question that fats are vital to your health and you need to include them in your diet, but which type of fat should you be eating? And how much?
As we navigate this conversation there’s one important thing to keep in mind — there are no “unhealthy” fats in nature. Fats become unhealthy and problematic to health when they are processed or manufactured (artificially refined vegetable oils, for example), eaten in excessive quantities, and coupled with high carb, high sugar diets. (Source)
While it has long been the assertion of many nutrition and health experts that saturated fat may be a contributing factor to coronary artery disease, opinions are changing after several reputable studies found little or no correlation between saturated fat intake, cholesterol levels, and an increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease. (Source, Source)
Some researchers are even advocating that certain types of saturated fats may be protective to health, and at the very least shouldn’t be maligned. A high intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates, they say, is much more problematic, driving inflammation and weight gain, and increasing the risk of heart disease exponentially. Take a pasture-raised steak and a bowl of ice cream, for example — both are high in saturated fat, but the steak provides the body with essential nutrients, while the bowl of ice cream is (for all intents and purposes) nutritionally void and in no way beneficial to health. (Source, Source)
Although the current U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting saturated fat to less than 10% of daily calories, experts have argued that this threshold does not take recent scientific discoveries into account and should be reconsidered. (Source, Source)
Mono- and polyunsaturated fats, on the other hand, have widely been accepted as the “healthier” category of fats for their role in decreasing problematic cholesterol and inflammation in the body. Omega-3 fatty acids in particular have been praised for their importance in nerve, cell, and brain health. You’ve probably heard of the two most famous omega-3’s, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is another.
Omega-3’s counterpart, omega-6, is also important, but most nutritionists stress increasing omega-3 intake over omega-6, since many Americans diets already consist of high amounts of omega-6 (and a balanced ratio is beneficial for good health, as mentioned above). (Source)
The one type of fat that experts universally agree on is trans fat — it’s bad news in everyone’s book. To create it, hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oil to make it solid at room temperature. This now highly stable fat unarguably has many uses, from frying to extending the shelf life of processed foods, but it comes at a high price. Trans fats have been shown to drive inflammation and disease in the body, leading the FDA to ban them in 2018. (Source, Source)
Incorporating Fat Into Your Healthy Diet
Like most things in life, moderation is key when it comes to incorporating different types of fat into a healthy diet, and it’s best to focus on eating a wide variety of whole, nutrient-dense foods. Eating this way, instead of focusing solely on macronutrient ratios, will establish a healthy eating pattern, one that incorporates all necessary nutrients in the diet — fat included!
Some healthy sources of fat include:
– wild caught fish, especially fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, and tuna, which are excellent sources of DHA & EPA
– grass-fed meats, and dairy products from grass-fed cattle and goats
– nuts such as walnuts, almonds, cashews, and pistachios
– seeds, including flaxseeds, chia seeds, and pumpkin seeds
– olives/extra virgin olive oil, avocados/avocado oil, and coconuts/coconut oil
Consumption of naturally occurring fats is essential to health. Fats support not only the proper functioning of your cells, brain, and nerves, but your immune and inflammatory responses, and ability to absorb important nutrients as well. Don't be scared of high fat whole foods, but try to avoid processed and manufactured fats of any kind, as they can be pro-inflammatory. Aim to consume a healthy, whole food diet rich in fish, nuts, seeds, healthy oils, and pastured meats and poultry (on top of plenty of vegetables and fruits!) to provide your body with the fat it needs to thrive.