What are dietary fats?
Dietary fat may have a bad reputation, but fat is vital for your health. The body actually needs fat for energy and for many critical processes such as the absorption of certain vitamins and minerals.
For several decades, American grocery stores have been stocked with an assortment of fat-free and low-fat food products. Because fat is high in calories, eliminating it seemed like a good way to manage weight and improve health.
Unfortunately, added sugars and refined carbohydrates are often used to replace fat in processed foods. That adds up to a lot of extra calories with little to no nutritional value.
There’s one bad fat that you should avoid, though: trans fats. They have no nutritional value and are harmful to your health.
They’re often found in:
- fried foods
- processed snacks
- baked goods
In June 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced its position that partially hydrogenated oils, the main source of artificial trans fat in processed foods, aren’t “generally recognized as safe” to eat. Food manufacturers have 3 years to phase them out.
This process has already begun. The
Two other types of dietary fat are saturated and unsaturated fat. Rather than trying to cut fat, learning more about these two types of fat and how they affect your body is more helpful.
Fats that are tightly packed with no double bonds between the fatty acids are called saturated fats. There are some exceptions, but most are solid at room temperature.
Sources of saturated fat include:
- fatty pieces of meat such as beef and lamb
- some pork and chicken products
- dairy products including cream, whole milk, butter, shortening, and cheese
- coconut and palm oils
The debate over whether consumption of saturated fat is bad for heart health has been ongoing for decades. Research studies offer conflicting findings regarding the impact of saturated fat on heart health, making this topic particularly confusing for consumers.
While it’s clear that saturated
For example, a 2014 review of 32 studies that included 27 randomized control trials involving over 650,000 people found no association between saturated fat intake and heart disease risk.
The review concluded that, “Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats.”
However, other studies have shown that saturated fat intake may increase the risk for heart disease.
While research on this subject is ongoing, it’s important to keep in mind that saturated fat is just one piece of your dietary intake. What matters most for maintaining your health and reducing your disease risk is the overall quality of your dietary intake and lifestyle.
An early study showed that grass-fed beef may elevate cholesterol less than grain-fed beef. Grass-fed lean beef usually contains less fat.
The typical American diet is too high in saturated fats.
Unsaturated fats are loosely packed. They tend to be liquid at room temperature.
There are two main types of unsaturated fat:
Foods that are highest in monounsaturated fats include:
- olive oil
- peanut oil
- most nuts
- most seeds
Your body needs polyunsaturated fats to function. Polyunsaturated fats help with muscle movement and blood clotting. Since your body doesn’t make this type of fat, you have to get it through your diet.
Polyunsaturated fats can be further divided into two types: omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial for heart health.
The best sources of omega-3 fatty acids are:
- fatty fish, such as sardines, tuna, salmon, trout, mackerel, and herring
- ground flax and flaxseed oil
- sunflower seeds
- chia seeds
- hemp seeds
There’s debate about the inflammatory role of omega-6 fatty acids. Most Americans consume more than enough of them. Consuming too many foods rich in omega-6 fats may increase inflammation in your body and raise your risk for certain health conditions, including obesity.
Omega-6 fatty acids can be found in:
- canola oil
- safflower oil
- soybean oil
- sunflower oil
- walnut oil
- corn oil
According to Harvard Medical School, recent research reveals that there’s not enough evidence that saturated fat raises your risk for cardiovascular disease.
However, according to a
Some oils may have more health benefits than others. Canola oil, although considered an unsaturated fat, is highly refined. According to a 2018 study, research has shown that it may have negative effects on health. Eating oils in moderation and varying your intake of types of oils is recommended.
People need fats, so you don’t have to do without them. However, regulatory authorities recommend that you eat saturated fat in moderation.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting your intake of saturated fat to less than 6 percent of your daily calories. That translates to about 120 calories, or about 13 grams per day on a 2,000-calorie daily diet.
However, research shows that certain higher fat diets, such as the Mediterranean diet, and low-carbohydrate diets, are beneficial for overall health. Ultimately, your energy needs, genetics, and lifestyle are the best indicators of your macronutrient needs.
Choosing to incorporate nutritious sources of fat in your diet can benefit your health in many ways, including:
- increasing satiety and reducing hunger
- helping you maintain a healthy weight
- improving blood lipid levels
However, all fats are not created equal.
The following table can help you choose the healthiest fat sources.
Unhealthy sources of fat
Healthy sources of fat
olive oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil
ice cream, icing, and other high-fat, sugary foods
unsweetened whole or low-fat yogurt
high-calorie fatty beverages such as whole chocolate milk
processed meats such as bacon and lunchmeats
nuts, seeds, and nut butters
refined vegetable oils, including canola oil
packaged high-fat foods such as chips and cookies
high-fat fish such as salmon and sardines
chia and hemp seeds
Other high-fat foods such as cheese and butter can fit into a healthy lifestyle as well. Just use moderation with these and other high-fat foods as they’re rich in calories and can lead to weight gain if overconsumed.
When preparing meals, keep in mind that certain fats are more appropriate for high-heat cooking methods, while others should only be added to dishes after cooking because they’re more heat sensitive.
For example, extra virgin olive oil or avocado oil work well for sautéing or pan-frying, while delicate oils such as walnut and flax oils should only be used to flavor dishes after cooking.
Here are some healthy eating tips:
- Sauté with olive oil or avocado oil.
- Bake with olive, sunflower, coconut, or avocado oil.
- Bake, broil, or grill seafood and poultry instead of frying.
When grocery shopping, read nutrition labels carefully. Be cautious when buying reduced-fat products as the fats are often replaced with sugars and other additives that aren’t good for your overall health.
The easiest way to ensure that you’re choosing healthy items when shopping is to fill your cart with mostly whole, unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods like vegetables, fruits, filling protein sources, and healthy fats.
Healthy eating starts with a diet rich in whole foods, including sources of healthy fats like avocados, nuts, seeds, eggs, and olive oil.
Just as overconsuming any macronutrient can cause weight gain, eating too many fat-rich foods can cause you to gain weight if the calories aren’t accounted for elsewhere in your diet.
Having overweight or obesity can raise your risk for heart disease and other chronic health conditions like diabetes.
However, fats are an essential part of the diet. Try to choose the right types of fats and to enjoy them in moderation as part of a healthful eating plan.