Nutrition Basics: What A Fat Is and Why It’s Important

Many people assume that fat is to blame for the obesity epidemic now plaguing our nation. Although dietary fat does play a significant role in obesity, fats are necessary and beneficial for health. It’s easy to overeat fats since they lurk in so many junk foods that many people eat on a regular basis (e.g. fries, cookies, ice cream, cheese, etc.). Contrary to past dietary advice promoting low-fat diets, newer research shows that eating the right type of fats is vital for weight loss, athletic performance and optimal health. If you are trying to get fitter and healthier, your nutrition program should be one of the main priorities, and fats are a key component. With all the online blogs, magazine articles, radio and television advertisements, it can be confusing and frustrating deciphering between what’s factual and what is not. This article will feed you the need-to-know facts on fats so you can optimize your nutrition and attain your health and fitness goals more efficiently.

What Is a Fat?

Fats, also referred to as lipids, are an essential energy source for humans. We eat fat and we also store energy in our bodies in the form of fat. Fat is utilized for energy, builds cell membranes, transports fat-soluble vitamins (A,D,E,K) and phytochemicals, protects our organs and bones, and insulates the body. Since fats are a macronutrient, you need relatively large amounts of it to stay healthy (whereas; vitamins and minerals are micronutrients, which you only need in small quantities).

The Importance of Fats for Exercise and Weight Loss

Since most people primarily focus on their protein and carbohydrate intake for weight loss or athletic performance, it can be easy to lose sight on the importance of fat intake. However, fat is an extremely important energy source for endurance exercise, along with carbohydrates, and some fat intake is required for optimal health. While fat is less accessible to individuals performing quick, intense efforts (e.g. sprinting or weight lifting), fat is essential for longer, slower intensity and endurance exercise (e.g. cycling or walking). Even during high intensity exercise, where carbohydrates are the main fuel source, fat is needed to help access the stored carbohydrate (glycogen). Using fat as fuel for exercise, however, is dependent upon some factors. Fat is slow to digest (it can take up to approximately 6 hours), so converting stored body fat into energy takes time. The body needs to break down fat and transport it to the working muscles before it can be used as energy. Converting stored body fat into energy takes a great deal of oxygen, so exercise intensity must decrease for this process to occur. For these reasons, fat consumption needs to be timed carefully. Generally, it’s not beneficial to eat fat immediately before or during intense exercise.

People trying to lose weight often think eating less fat is the best way to drop pounds, but that’s simply not true! A gram of fat packs more than twice the energy of a gram of protein or carbohydrate. The body requires energy to keep its metabolism functioning properly and consuming fats has been shown to boost metabolic health. Like carbohydrates, fat is stored when you consume more calories than you use. There is an optimal level of body fat for health and physical activity, and when that optimal level is exceeded, too much dietary fat can lead to health problems or a decrease in athletic performance. Eating the proper amount and right type of fat can aid in weight loss. Fat increases the satiety of a meal, as it’s the slowest macronutrient to leave the stomach, other than fiber. Monounsaturated fats may also help stabilize blood sugar levels, which means you feel full longer. In fact, diets with high amount of omega-3 fats (a type of polyunsaturated fat that the body can only require through food) create a greater sense of fullness both immediately following and a couple hours after dinner than do meals with low levels of fats. It’s no surprise that dieters who consume moderate levels of fat are more likely to stick with their nutrition programs than dieters who consume low levels of fat.

Fats are also a key component to regulate the level of inflammation in your body. Exercise-induced damage to your muscles triggers increases in strength and endurance. This damage leads to inflammation in the muscles. When muscles are inflamed, they are sore and lose strength and range of motion. Omega-3 fats are needed to regulate the level of inflammation in your body. A nutrition program low in omega-3 fats, while high in the more common omega-6 fats, can bias your body towards inflammation, which impairs exercise recovery.

How Much Fat Should Be Consumed?

While people generally understand that consuming fat is important to supply the body with energy, eating the right amounts of fats can be the tricky part. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for total fats is 44 grams per day. The RDA is the amount of a nutrient you need to meet your basic nutritional requirements. It’s the MINIMUM amount you need to keep from getting sick—not the specific amount you are supposed to eat every day. The exact amount that’s right for you is dependent on many factors: your goals, genetics, age, sex, height, weight, current nutrition program and overall health status. For most people, aiming to hit 20-35% of your total caloric intake from fats should be sufficient. Based on a 2,000 calorie nutrition program, this would equate to between 44-77 grams of fat daily. More specifically, less than 7% of total fat calories should come from saturated fat. Health experts place even greater restrictions on recommendations for intake of trans-fats – less than 1% of total fat calories should come from trans fats. Focus on getting most your fat calories from unsaturated fat sources – most people don’t eat enough unsaturated fats. Since the body produces all the saturated fat it needs, you don’t need to consume it from outside sources.

Not All Fats Are Created Equal

The simplest form of a fat is a fatty acid (FA). The fatty acid content in the nutrition of an organism determines the proportion of fatty acid in the animal itself. For example, the nutrition of a chicken determines the fats present in its eggs and meat and thus, the fats that we eat. Fats can be categorized as unsaturated fatty acids (UFA), saturated fatty acids (SFA) and trans fatty acids (TFA). Naturally occurring fats are mixtures of different types of fats (monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated), although one type usually predominates in a food.

There are two types of unsaturated fats: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Monounsaturated fats, which are liquid at room temperature, are considered beneficial fats because they can improve blood cholesterol levels, ease inflammation, stabilize heart rhythms, and play numerous other beneficial roles. Polyunsaturated fats are predominantly found in foods from plants and are considered beneficial fats as well. Omega-3 and omega-6 fats are both important types of polyunsaturated fats. Omega-3 fats are known to have anti-inflammatory properties and may help lower risk of chronic diseases (e.g. heart disease, cancer, arthritis). Our intake of omega-3 fats has decreased over the years as our nutrition has changed from either fish-based (our predecessors living by the sea) or green plant-based (our predecessors living inland) to a largely meat and grain-based diet. Our modern diet is richer in omega-6 fats from animal protein and grain oils. Omega-6 fats, which are essential to humans, can be inflammatory in large quantities. Omega-6 fats are now over-abundant in our nutrition for our evolutionary preferences, while omega-3 fats are too scarce.

 Saturated fats have a neutral effect on health and do not appear to cause or contribute to heart disease as previously thought. Saturated fat intake can raise LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels in some people, although this depends in part on the specific fatty acids consumed. It should be noted that HDL (“good”) cholesterol typically goes up as well.  In fact, some foods high in saturated fat may benefit metabolic health (e.g. coconut oil).

Trans fats are technically a type of unsaturated fat (and may be monounsaturated or polyunsaturated), but are the worst type of fat as they increase disease risk (coronary artery disease, cancer, etc.), even when consumed in small quantities. Although trans fats occur naturally, in small quantities, in meat and dairy products from ruminants, most trans fats consumed today are industrially created as a side effect of partial hydrogenation of plant oils. Partial hydrogenation changes a fat’s molecular structure and results in the fat becoming a trans fat. Because of its harm, trans fat is noted on food labels; however, if a food contains less than 0.5g trans fat per serving, the manufacturer doesn’t have to mention it and can even label the food as having “0g trans fat”. A more reliable way to identify trans fat in a food is to look for “hydrogenated” in the ingredient list. If present, then the food contains trans fat, even if the label reads “0g trans fat”. Unlike other fats, trans fats are neither required nor beneficial for health (companies make trans fats to prolong the shelf life of food). For these reasons, the consumption of trans fats should be avoided or reduced to trace amounts.

Regardless of the type of nutrition program you follow, it’s important to get a balance of different types of healthy fats every day. Fortunately, many delicious foods can provide the fat you need. While most foods contain a mixture of different fats, some are especially high in certain types. Below are examples of foods rich in different types of healthy fats.

MONO/POLYUNSATURATED FAT SATURATED FAT TRANS FAT
Olive Oil Coconut Oil, Palm Oil Hydrogenated Margarine
Olives Cheddar Cheese, Mascarpone Cheese Shortening
Avocados Lamb Meat Commercial Frying Fats
Chia Seeds, Flax Seeds Whole Milk Dairy (e.g. Full-Fat Yogurt) High-fat Baked Goods
Beef Salty Snacks containing Trans Fats
Pork
Salmon, Sardines, Herring, Mackerel, Anchovies
Almonds, Pecans, Hazelnuts, Pistachios, Peanuts, Macadamia Nuts, Walnuts

 

Rather than adopting a low-fat nutrition program, it’s more important to focus on eating beneficial “good” fats and avoiding harmful “bad” fats. Choose foods with “good” unsaturated fats, don’t worry about foods high in saturated fat, and avoid “bad” trans fats. Eating the right amounts and right types of fat can go a long way toward reduce disease risk and enhancing your overall health. Enjoyed reading this blog post? Put an asterisk (*) in the comments section below so I know how many people are reading these blog posts!

References:

Cespedes, Andrea. (2015, April 24). What is The Recommended Daily Intake of Fat Grams. Livestrong. Retrieved Feb 8, 2017 from http://www.livestrong.com/article/47612-recommended-daily-intake-fat-grams/

Daniels, Chris. (2017). Importance of Healthy Fats for Athletes. SF Gate. http://healthyeating.sfgate.com/importance-healthy-fats-athletes-1722.html

Franziska Spritzler. (2017). Fat Grams – How Much Fat Should You Eat Per Day. Authority Nutrition. Retrieved Feb 7, 2017 from https://authoritynutrition.com/how-much-fat-to-eat/

Harvard T.H. Chan. (2017). Types of Fat. Harvard School of Public Health. Retrieved February 7, 2017 from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/types-of-fat/

University of Bergen. (2016, December 2). Saturated fat could be good for you, study suggests. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 6, 2017 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/12/161202094340.htm

N.A. (2017, February 8). Reference Terms Saturated Fat. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 6, 2017 from https://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/saturated_fat.htm

N.A. (2017, February 8). Reference Terms Trans Fat. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 6, 2017 from https://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/trans_fat.htm

N.A. (2017, February 8). Reference Terms Unsaturated Fat. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 6, 2017 from https://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/unsaturated_fat.htm

Quinn, Elizabeth. (2016, June 30). Sports Nutrition – How Fat Provides Energy for Exercise. Verywell. https://www.verywell.com/sports-nutrition-how-fat-provides-energy-for-exercise-3120664

By | 2017-02-10T10:36:55+00:00 February 10th, 2017|Uncategorized|1 Comment

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  1. Margie February 27, 2017 at 9:23 pm - Reply

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