For the last several decades, we have been told to eat as little dietary fat as possible. Buy low-fat or non-fat everything, hold the cheese, make it with light dressing. Fat, we assume, will make us fat (and sick).
There is a lot of disagreement around how much and what fats to eat, which types are healthy, and which may be better left on the shelf. Guidance from health associations has promoted the theory that dietary fats, especially saturated fats, cause an increase in low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, which leads to the build-up of plaque in the arteries. This plaque build-up can then lead to coronary heart disease.
But the truth may not be quite so straightforward. Fatty acids are necessary for our bodies to function properly. Two fatty acids, Alpha-Linolenic Acid and Linoleic Acid are essential, meaning our bodies cannot make them, so we must get them from the food we eat. Fats make up the membranes that surround every one of our cells, and the fats we eat determine how rigid or fluid our cellular membranes are. (Hint: We need them to be a little bit of both.)
Even more, fats support immune function, help maintain skin and hair health, and are a critical source of energy for our bodies, along with glucose.
Fat is clearly crucial for our health, but what types of fat are best, and how much do we need?
What are the different types of dietary fats?
There are three main types of dietary fats: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated.
Think butter, lard, and coconut oil. Molecules in saturated fats are packed very tightly together, which is what makes them solid at room temperature. Saturated fats give our cellular membranes more structure and rigidity, which is a good thing, because we want our cell walls to be strong, so our cells don’t just fall apart. Saturated fats make some of the best cooking fats because they hold up to higher heat, and do not go rancid as quickly as more delicate fats.
Think olive oil, avocado, walnuts, and macadamia nuts. Monounsaturated fats are a bit more delicate than saturated fats, and are more prone to oxidation. These fats are very flavorful, but can be damaged when exposed to high heat. They can also go rancid easily, which is why olive oils are stored in dark glass bottles. Unsaturated fats give your cellular membranes more fluidity, which is also a good thing, because we want our cells to be flexible and fluid so that nutrients can flow in, and waste can flow out. Typically, we recommend monounsaturated fats like olive oil for dressing instead of cooking.
Think fish, walnuts, flax, along with seed oils like canola and soy. Like monounsaturated fats, these fats are always liquid at room temperature, and are the most delicate fatty acids. These are where those essential fats live, our Omega-3s and Omega-6s. You have likely heard of Omega-3s, and been told to take your fish oil. Our bodies need a ratio of Omega-6s to Omega-3s of about 3:1. What most people get with our current modern diets is about 20:1.
Polyunsaturated fats go rancid most easily, so we recommend getting this fat from fresh food, like fish and nuts, or through a supplement like fish oil or flaxseed oil. As these oils can go rancid quickly, it’s good to find a supplement that uses fresh, quality ingredients, and takes care to not damage these delicate fats. Check out these great sources of Omega-3 fats in our supplement shop: Nordic Naturals ProOmega or Protocol for Life Balance Flax Seed Oil.
A note about seed oils: seed oils, like canola, corn, soy, sunflower, and cottonseed oils are polyunsaturated fats consisting mainly of Omega-6 fatty acids. Not a bad thing on its own, however, these oils are typically highly refined (think motor oil), heavily chemically treated, and usually rancid by the time they have reached store shelves. Since they are primarily Omega-6 fats and not a balance of Omega-6 to Omega-3, they can throw off our essential fatty acid balance, which can lead to chronic inflammation.
Isn’t fat bad for you?
As we mentioned above, fats are necessary for our bodies to function properly. The idea that fats directly lead to heart disease and other ailments has a long and storied history that doesn’t necessarily tell the entire story. While fats can certainly be combined with poor dietary and lifestyle choices to make chronic inflammation worse, they are not the sole cause of disease.
Saturated fat, the much-maligned fat that you find primarily from animal sources, has recently been exonerated as a “nutrient of concern.” Recent studies have shown that saturated fat is not associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, or mortality. In fact, all whole foods that contain fat contain all three types of fat (saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated) at different ratios. So it is impossible to avoid saturated fat as long as you are eating a diet of whole foods like meat, fish, legumes, fruits, and vegetables.
Suffice it to say that a proper mix of fats as part of a nutrient dense, whole foods diet supports our overall health. Fat is essential for hormonal function, immune function, and cellular function. Fat is also energy, and our bodies are very good at using fat as a long-lasting, slow-burning type of fuel. While our bodies are very efficient at storing excess energy as fat, when we eat a whole foods diet and our fat storage hormone insulin is low, our bodies are also very good at using that stored energy as fuel.
How much fat should I eat?
As with so many things, how much fat you should eat depends on you as an individual. Factors like age, gender, weight, medical history, activity levels, and personal goals all play a part. For example, for those wanting support with energy balance and blood sugar regulation, adding more fat to the diet could be beneficial. Fats create no insulin response in the body, meaning it doesn’t trigger your body to store anything as fat. However, refined carbohydrates like breads, pastas, and cereal create a major insulin response for most, which is why we don’t recommend eating these foods regularly, especially with fat. Fats are a good consistent form of energy, which can support blood sugar balance and appetite control.
We recommend getting your fats from unrefined or minimally refined whole foods, like animal and plant sources. This means including fats like olive oil, avocado, coconut, and dairy, but also from eggs, walnuts, meat, and fish. We recommend avoiding processed and refined seed oils like canola, soy, corn, safflower, cottonseed, or sunflower due to their highly inflammatory effects on the body.
In terms of how much fat to eat each day, we suggest a balance of macronutrients from nutrient dense whole food sources. How you adjust your intake of fat, protein, and carbohydrates is up to you and your goals. Someone looking to improve appetite control or increase muscle mass might include a higher percentage of protein and more moderate amounts of fat and carbohydrates, for example.
If you are hoping to improve energy balance and your blood sugar regulation, you may want to tip the percentage toward more fat. As an example, someone with these goals eating 2,500 calories per day might try something like this:
Carbohydrates: 20% of total calories (500 calories or 125 grams of carbohydrates)
Protein: 25% of total calories (625 calories or 156 grams of protein)
Fat: 55% of total calories (1,375 calories or 153 grams of fat)
That may seem like a lot of fat, but keep in mind that there are 9 calories in every gram of fat, so the amount of fat on your plate is even less than the protein.
If it is helpful to you, there are several macronutrient tracker apps available to get you started calculating your balance of protein, fats, and carbs. These apps, such as MyFitnessPal, Chronometer, and My Food Data, all have food databases and will allow you to input your food each day and break down the nutrient and caloric details of your meal. Once you have a good sense of your normal fat intake, you should be able to adjust accordingly. This should just be to get a baseline—we don’t recommend ongoing use of the app or getting focused on a specific number.
Ultimately, it all depends on how you feel. As you begin to adjust your fat intake, start small, as not everyone's digestion can tolerate a significant increase all at once. No one is asking you to eat spoonfuls of lard! Try cooking food with coconut oil rather than canola oil. Drizzle olive oil over steamed broccoli, or have full-fat, plain Greek yogurt with granola and berries for breakfast one morning. Then try introducing something else the next day, and check in with your body. You may notice more consistent energy levels throughout the day, as well as less snacking overall. Keep track of how you feel as you introduce more fat, whether in an app or a food journal.
How does eating fat make you feel? If you're struggling with eating fat, it could mean your digestion could use a little help. Our practitioners are experts in optimizing digestion and can help you incorporate this essential macronutrient into your diet in a sustainable way. Click below to get started with one of our nutrition professionals.
About the Author
Joel is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner who began his health journey when he decided to quit cigarettes for good. By finding the motivation to make lifestyle changes in diet, exercise, stress, and sleep, he feels healthier in his 40’s than in his 20’s, and wants to make sure he will be around for a long time. Once he saw results in himself, Joel wanted to use his passion for wellness to help other people. Joel has a private practice in Northern California where he helps clients achieve better energy, focus, and connection to their bodies through bio-individual diet and lifestyle changes. Learn more about Joel.
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