“Including Healthy Fat Foods in Your Diet” was written by Emily Zhang and reviewed/edited by Kasey Hageman MS, RD, LD. Emily is a dietetic student at Hunter College.
It is important to include healthy fat foods in your diet. Fat provides you with long-term fuel and helps keep you satisfied after a meal. Fat is one of three macronutrients. It has 9 calories per gram, whereas carbohydrates and protein both have 4 calories per gram.
You may ask, “Why do I need fat in my diet?” or “Doesn’t fat cause weight gain?” The simple answer is yes fat can cause weight gain. BUT, this is also true for the other macronutrients. So, a surplus of calories, regardless of the source, will cause weight gain.
This is why a balance between all macronutrients is important.
Fats are important for driving many biological functions in your body. Besides storing energy, and keeping you full after a meal, healthy fat foods supports cell growth, protects your organs, and keeps you warm.
You also need fat for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and the production and regulation of hormones. As you can see, fats are important for your body and overall health!
The recommended daily intake for fat is 20% to 35% of your total calories. This means that if you are eating a 2,000 calorie diet, you will need to consume 44 to 77 grams of fat per day. However, it is important to pay attention to what types of fat you are eating though since not all fats are the same.
There are many types of fat and it can get very overwhelming at first, so let’s break it down.
What is the difference between saturated and unsaturated fats?
Saturated fat is usually solid at room temperature. This includes your butter, coconut oil, and palm oil. All animals contain saturated fat, but some have more than others. For example, beef, pork, lamb, and ice-cream would have more saturated fat than chicken, fish, or nuts.
It is recommended to limit your saturated fat intake to less than 10% per day. This is because consuming too much can increase your LDL (the bad cholesterol) levels. Over time this may increase your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, oxidative stress, and cancer.
By reducing your consumption of saturated fats and replacing them with unsaturated fats, you can decrease your risk for chronic health conditions in the future.
Here are some foods that contain saturated fat and you may want to reduce your consumption of:
- Butter, lard
- Dairy desserts
- Processed meats (sausage, bacon, luncheon meat)
- Baked goods (cookies, cake)
- Snacks (chips, popcorn)
|Food Source||Serving Size||Amount of Saturated Fat per Serving (grams)|
|Luncheon meat||3 oz||10g|
|Chocolate Chip Cookie||1 cookie||3g|
|Butter Popcorn||1 cup||4g|
Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and are typically found in plants. They are considered healthy fat foods because of how they can improve cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure and decrease the risk for heart disease.
Unsaturated fats can be further broken down into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Chemically, monounsaturated fat has one unsaturated carbon bond in the molecule or one double bond. Polyunsaturated fat has more than one double bond in its structure.
Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) help lower LDL levels and increasing HDL levels. As a result, MUFAs lower your risk for heart disease. MUfAs are also a great source of vitamin E to include in your diet. Vitamin E is is an antioxidant that protects your cells from damage. Here are some foods that are high in monounsaturated fat:
- Olive oil
- Vegetable oils (canola oil, peanut oil, safflower oil)
- Nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans)
Along with decreasing your risk for heart disease and providing your body with vitamin E, polyunsaturated fat is important for certain bodily functions. PUFAs play a role in muscle function and blood clotting. Here are some foods that are high in polyunsaturated fat:
- Fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna)
- Nuts (walnuts, pine nuts)
- Seeds (sunflower seeds, flax, pumpkin, sesame)
- Vegetable oils (soybean, sunflower)
Trans Fat: The man-made fat
Trans fat is unhealthy and considered the worst type of fat you can eat. This is because of the way it is produced and the detrimental effects it can have on your health. It raises LDL (bad cholesterol) and lowers HDL (good cholesterol).
Trans fat is made from the hydrogenation of vegetable oils. By heating liquid vegetable oils in the presence of hydrogen gas, these oils become more spreadable and solid at room temperature. Also, by chemically altering vegetable oils, they have a longer shelf life.
Margarine and shortening are some examples of artificial trans fats. Small amounts are also present in animal products such as beef fat and dairy.
Fortunately, the Food and drug association (FDA) banned artificial trans fat from packaged and restaurant foods in 2015, because of the overwhelming research that proved how it negatively affected people’s health.
However, traces of trans fat can still be found in some foods and it is always good to keep an eye out. Always check nutrition labels and ingredients lists for trans fat!
Here are some foods that may contain traces of trans fat:
- Frozen foods
- Crackers, cookies, cakes
- Breaded or fried chicken
- French fries
Benefits of Omega 3, 6 & 9
Omega-3 and omega-6 fats are polyunsaturated fats. These are both essential and must be obtained through food.
The three in omega-3 refers to the position of the final double bond in the chemical structure. This double bond is at the third carbon atom from the tail of the molecule. Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation, blood pressure, triglycerides, and can prevent plaque from forming in your arteries. This reduction of plaque formation reduces your risk for heart disease and stroke.
Omega-3 can be present in different forms: Among the 11 different types of omega-3 fatty acids, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are the most important ones.
Alpha-linoleic acid (ALA)
Alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) is the most common fatty acid and is the form found in plants. ALA needs to be converted into EPA and DHA before your body can utilize it. However, the conversion rate is so inefficient that it is recommended to get EPA and DHA from food. Flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and canola and soybean oils are some healthy fat foods that are high in ALA.
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are the forms found in marine animals and eggs. Oily fish such as salmon and mackerel are good sources. EPA can reduce inflammation and manage heart disease. DHA is important for brain health and development. It can also slow the degeneration of the retina in your eyes.
In omega-6, the final double bond in the chemical structure is on the 6th carbon from the tail end of the molecule. Although omega-6 is also great for your heart health, eating too much may cause inflammation. Sources of omega-6 are vegetable oils, nuts, and tofu.
The recommended ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids is 4:1 or less. However, the typical Western diet has a ratio of 15:1!
While omega-3s and omega-6s are essential, omega-9 is non-essential and can be made in the body. However, omega-9s are considered healthy and have many benefits. These benefits include decreasing LDL, increasing HDL, and eliminating plaque in arteries. Omega-9s can also be found in olive oil, canola, oil, and nuts such as cashews and almonds.
In conclusion, learning about the different types and forms of fat is super helpful for making informed decisions about the food you eat.
Your diet should never be composed of one singular type of fat, rather a mixture of different fats. For that reason, it is important to understand the differences between the different types of fats. Then you can choose healthy fat foods that are higher in healthier MUFAs and PUFAs.
If your goal is to lose weight/fat, you do not have to avoid fats. Focusing on consuming more healthy fats in a balanced way will benefit your health goals.
Above all, a simple guideline to follow would be to limit fast-foods and processed foods and try to eat more whole food sources of fats.