We often think of fats as something to avoid in our diet; after all, take a look at just how many food products are labeled “fat-free” next time you go to the grocery store.
But the truth is, we need fats in our diet. Without fats, we wouldn't function as people. Read on to learn more!
Do I really need fat?
Short answer: Yes! The longer answer is still yes, but with the caveat that not all fats are created equal. We'll talk about that more shortly.
For now, know this: Fats are essential for energy, for cell growth, for proper organ function, and for insulation. They're also needed for some vitamin and nutrient absorption, brain function, and even hormone production. Without fats in your diet, your body wouldn't work very well, and soon, it would cease to work at all. So yes, you need fats.
For instance, consider the following functions fats fulfill:
- Energy. Because fats are calorie-dense, they remain one of the best sources of energy we can consume. Additionally, when we don't take in as many calories as we're burning, our bodies can burn fats for that extra energy.
- Vitamin absorption. For instance, vitamins A, E, and K are fat-soluble, meaning that our body doesn't absorb them without fat. We need those vitamins.
- Flavor. Fats are a huge part of what make some of our favorite foods so delicious!
- Satiation. Fats can help us feel full longer. (Additionally, if you've ever gone on a low-fat diet, you've probably noticed your diet craving fatty foods. This is a big part of why: Your body needs fats!)
- Nutrient transportation. It's fats that help nutrients get across cell membranes, allowing your body to use those nutrients.
- Nerve insulation. Fat helps protect our nerves by insulating nerve fibers and helping facilitate nerve impulses.
- Body insulation. Without fat, we would be so much colder in the winter, as fat serves an important function by helping insulate and protect our organs.
Without fats, our bodies would be in so much trouble!
What are the different kinds of fats?
There are four main types of dietary fats:
- Saturated fats
- Trans fats
- Monounsaturated fats
- Polyunsaturated fats
Each of the four types are different chemically, and as such, have different physical properties as well. Let's look at each of them a little more closely.
Saturated fats: Tend to be solid at room temperature. Saturated fats are generally considered a bad fat because they raise the LDL cholesterol levels in your blood.
Trans fats: Like saturated fats, trans fats tend to be solid at room temperature. They, too, raise LDL cholesterol levels, which can contribute to cardiovascular health concerns.
Monounsaturated fats: Tend to be liquid at room temperature. Monounsaturated fats are generally considered a good fat.
Polyunsaturated fats: Tend to be liquid at room temperature. Polyunsaturated fats are also generally considered a good fat.
How many calories are in fat?
Regardless of the type of fat, every single gram of fat contains nine calories; fats are much more energy-dense than proteins or carbohydrates, each of which offer four calories per gram.
This is one of the reasons fats have gotten a bad reputation: Because they are more calorie-dense, they've often been blamed for weight gain and obesity. Additionally, high consumption of the bad fats—saturated and trans fats—has been linked to heart disease and stroke.
As a result, most experts recommend replacing saturated and trans fats with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats whenever possible.
Does that mean “trans fat-free” foods are healthy?
Not quite. Partially this is because trans fats are often replaced with saturated fats, which also aren't very good for you. Additionally, when producers remove fats from a food item, they often add sugars and other similarly nutrient-low ingredients.
Instead, look for foods that are either naturally low in fats or instead of trans fats utilize monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats.
How can I make fats part of my healthy diet?
Fats can, and should be, part of your diet. A few principles to keep in mind when looking at fats in your diet:
- Balance your nutritional plan for a healthy balance of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. While some special diets may recommend a different ratio, the general idea for most people might be in the neighborhood of 50% carbohydrates, 30% proteins, and 20% fats, for instance. If you are on a 2,000-calorie diet, that might look like 1,000 calories from carbs (which at 4 calories per gram, is 250 grams), 600 calories from proteins (150 grams), and 400 calories from fats (or, at 9 calories per gram, 45 grams). As you can see, it doesn't take as many grams of fat to reach the same caloric levels because of the higher calorie-density.
- Aim for a diet that prioritizes vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, as well as lean meats, fish, and nuts, and limits red meats, sugars, sodium, and artificial ingredients. Doing so will help limit your intake of bad fats while ensuring you get plenty of good fats.
- Whenever possible, replace saturated and trans fats with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. This means olive oil, for instance, instead of margarine or butter.
- Lastly, be sure to balance the calories you eat with the calories you burn.
Does this mean I have to give up my favorite foods, like steak and buttery lobster?
No. It does mean, though, that you should practice moderation when it comes to those red meats and other sources of unhealthy fats, instead working toward replacing some of those foods with healthier sources of fats.
For instance, fish, and especially fatty fish like salmon, are a great way to replace some of those steaks, as they're loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown beneficial for so many things, including brain function!
What should I add to my diet to get more good fats?
So many good things! Great sources of good fats include fish (especially salmon and tuna), nuts, legumes, and lean white meats, such as turkey.
Clearly, we need fat in our diet. Now we just have to make sure we're getting the good fats instead of the bad ones, and with the information above, you can do precisely that!