An explanation of dietary fat and weight loss
Whether you are trying to lose weight, lower your blood cholesterol levels, or simply eat healthier, you may want to limit total fat intake, but you need to understand that fats are a vitally important part of your diet. In fact, many of the processes of our body require them to function. Not all fats are created equal, and some types are healthier than others. Choosing to eat healthier fats from lean meats or vegetable sources is the right choice. In fact, most animal fats may increase your risk of heart attack, stroke, and other major health problems.
For decades, we have been told by professional health organizations such as the American Heart Association, that fat was the villain that has made us overweight and obese. Some have even pointed to is as the cause of diabetes type 2, heart disease, and stroke. Sure, fat is higher in calories, and they are not exactly helpful in attaining that slim and thin beach body, but they are not entirely the cause of that muffin top you are sporting. The fact is that Americans are consuming more and more low-fat foods and snacks, and becoming heavier and heavier.
What are Fats?
Fats are one type of nutrient that you get from your diet. They are one of the macronutrients are large compounds that we use for energy. The other two major macronutrients are carbohydrates and protein. I usually look at the macronutrient in a similar way to fossil fuels because they are carbon compounds that we burn for energy and use as structural components for our body. The image to the left is an example of a fat called a triglyceride. Each “C’ in the image is a carbon atom.
Fat has a negative stigma as being harmful, but the fact is we need fat. The fats we eat are primarily used by our bodies for energy, but there are other uses for fats. Energy is not the only way our bodies we use we have for fat. Fats are used in the membranes that surround our cells, we use them to make hormones, we use them insulate our bodies, and we cannot absorb fat-soluble vitamins without eating some fat. Most importantly, there are some types of fat or fatty acids that our bodies can make, so they are termed essential.
Fats like proteins are similar to polymers. Polymers are compounds of repeating units of a single compound. For example, a plastic named polystyrene is made of repeating styrenes bound together as one compound or polymer. Proteins are large compounds produced of amino acids linked together to form single macronutrient. Similarly, fats are formed from multiple fatty acids in a similar manner.
Most of the fats our body uses come from the food we eat, but we can make some of them. Humans cannot produce essential fatty acids such as docosahexaenoic acid, linoleic and, linolenic acid. Like I said above, they are called “essential” because our bodies cannot make them itself. In fact, our bodies will not work efficiently without them and may develop multiple ailments if we do not acquire them. For example, docosahexaenoic acid is essential for proper brain development and functioning.
You may be focusing on fat for weight loss. It makes mathematical sense because fat has nine calories per gram. That is more than two times the four calories per gram found in carbohydrates and protein. The problem is that weight loss and maintenance is not as simple as calories. The caloric content per gram may seem to be the answer, but fats also increase satiety and flavor which may reduce intake.
How much fat should I eat?
The recommended daily intake for fat in adults is between 20% and 35% of your total daily calories. If you eat a 2000 calorie diet, that would be 400 to 700 calories or 40 grams to 80 grams of fat per day. I recommend a diverse source for fats with some from animal and plant sources without a predominance from a single source, although it is recommended that you limit some forms of fats because of their negative impact on your health.
Types of fats:
Some fats will help us remain healthy, but others will increase your risk for life-shortening illnesses such as heart disease. We need a healthy balance of omega-3 and six fatty acids in a ratio of about 1:2 or lower. The problem is that many of us, due to our dietary sources, have a ratio of 1:25. Higher ratios promote inflammation that causes heart disease and other illness. Below are some examples with the recommended intake (also the infographic above is helpful):
- Saturated Fats: Recommended that saturated fats make up less than 10% of your daily fat intake. Saturated fats are found mostly in animals products. Foods with a lot of saturated fats are animal products, such as butter, cheese, whole milk, ice cream, cream, and fatty meats. Saturated fats are typically solid or nearly solid at room temperature. Coconut and palm oils are plant sources for saturated fats.
- Unsaturated fats: These are the healthier fats. These fats are usually liquid at room temperature.
- Monounsaturated Fats: There is no specific recommendation, but for good health, the majority of the fats that you eat should be monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. This type of fat found in avocado, canola, peanut, olive oil. These fats are liquid at room temperature, but they will solidify a little or go cloudy at lower temperatures such as being stored in the refrigerator.
- Polyunsaturated Fats: Recommended that you make polyunsaturated fats be at least 10% of your daily fat intake. Polyunsaturated fats are also liquid at room temperature and will only solidify with frozen. Many of what we call essential fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats. Two groups to focus on are the Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids.
- Essential Fatty Acids: Omega-3: No specific recommendations exist outside of the 1:2 ratio (3 to 6). The omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish, krill, and flaxseed oil.
- Essential Fatty Acids: Omega-6: No specific recommendations outside of the 1:2 ratio (3 to 6). The omega-6 fatty acids are found in cooking oils such as canola oil, corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, and soy oil. These oils or fats are highly processed should be minimized or removed from your diet.
- Trans-Fatty Acids: Recommended at 0% of your daily dietary intake. These altered or chemical produced fats are terrible for your are have been virtually banned. They are converted or processed oils that are hydrogenated hence their other name partially hydrogenated oils. These oils are unhealthy fats that formed to keep some foods fresh for a long time. These unnatural fats skyrocket your risk of heart disease and stroke and should be avoided. The good thing is if you read the labels and avoid “hydrogenated XXXXX oil” and “partially hydrogenated XXXXX oils” with the XXXXX representing the source, you can vastly lower your risk of these illnesses, and the inflammation is causes.
- Cholesterol: Recommendation is less than 300 mg per day. It is not really a type of fat but a product of fat. It is required for membrane formation, but more is not better.
It is easy to see why it is important to read nutrition labels on foods. Labels will help you know what kinds of fats, and how much, your food contains. If you are confused, I recommend that you discuss fat intake your health care provider or dietician. Your provider may refer you to a dietitian who can help you learn more about foods and help you plan a healthy diet.
Is there a relationship between fat intake and weight?
Yes and no. We store energy as fat, but this fat storage is not necessarily from fat. Fats contain more calories per unit weight than any of the macronutrients including alcohol (7 Calories per gram). Although it is true that if you eat excess calories from any source including fat, eating fat will not necessarily make you overweight or obese.
Losing weight takes more than just eating low-fat foods. In fact, many low-fat foods tend to replace fat calories with sugar. This is especially true with fat-free baked goods. You must also watch how many calories you eat and become familiar with appropriate portion sizes. Fats are the more calorie-dense, but most of us get way more calories from sugars and carbohydrates than from fat. In fact, carbohydrates and sugars can cause insulin spikes that turn on fat storage mechanisms.
Fats are actually good for you if you make the right choices and there are tons of delicious, healthy fatty foods to choose. Pick foods that are high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats with a good ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids like avocados, salmon, olive oil, nuts, and, yes, whole eggs.
The bottom line: Fats will not make you fat unless they lead to excess calories. I recommend that you learn to read labels and choose your foods wisely. The evil villain is obesity is processed foods that are high in carbohydrates and sugar and low in fiber. Pick fats that are from whole foods and not processes franken-oils. If you need oil to cook with, I recommend olive oil. Now that you know that fat is not evil, you can smartly add healthy fats your grocery cart.