Macronutrient 3: Fats
Let’s be honest! Who doesn’t like fats? From the added melted butter on your asparagus to the greasy bacon strips on Saturday mornings, they make food taste delicious! Oh! And don’t forget about a tasty bowl of ice cream (my personal weakness)! So why do people avoid fats like they are the plague? Well, fats are made of fat, so it must make you fat? Right? Unfortunately it is a little more complicated than that, but these are the types of claims we hear all the time.
Social media and food guides have exiled fats in diets as they claim to be the culprits of high cholesterol, high blood pressure and increased risks of coronary heart disease. The thing is, they aren’t wrong, they’ve just misinformed us. Studies show that only certain types of fats can lead to chronic diseases and be detrimental to our health. Therefore, not all fats are bad! In fact, adding the proper types of fats in your diet can actually make you healthier! Let me teach you about fats and which ones are good for you!
What is a fat?
Fats are an organic compound that is made up of fatty acids. Another name for fats is triglycerides. Triglycerides are when three fatty acids join together, they are the most common form of fat in our diet. They are also the fat that is stored in our adipose tissues making us look plump. Out of the three macronutrients, fats are the most energy condensed and hold the most calories (9 kcals per gram). This also means that it takes longer for the body to digest them.
The following points outline the major roles of fats in our body:
- Fats provide the body with the biggest energy source.
- Fats help create and control hormones.
- Fats make up our cell membranes.
- Fats are key structures of our brain and our nervous system.
- Fats are vitamin carriers/transporters.
- Fat provides protection to our vital organs.
- Fat helps regulate body temperature through insulation.
- Fats can decrease inflammation.
As you can see, fats are essential for many physiological responses and are necessary for optimal health.
What type of fats?
There are two types of fats: saturated fats and unsaturated fats. Saturated fats are the animal fats and tropical oils. Unsaturated fats can be further broken down to monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. These are known as the “healthy fats” which includes the highly popular and marketed omega-3 and omega-6 fats. They are the ones that have beneficial effects on blood triglyceride and cholesterol levels.
Lastly, unsaturated fats can also be made into trans fats. Trans fats are a manmade product created to increase fat shelf life. The increased smooth taste has also been preferred over traditional fats and caused over consumption. These are the unhealthiest dietary fats.
Since all these fat terms can be confusing, the chart below will help you understand how fats are broken down.
Fats (fatty acids)
Saturated Fats Unsaturated Fats
Monounsaturated fats (healthy)
Polyunsaturated fats (healthy)
Trans fats (unhealthy)
Which fats to eat?
Overall, consuming a balance of saturated and unsaturated fats in one’s diet is necessary for optimal health. Since the Westerner’s diet generally includes more saturated fats than unsaturated fats, one should try to limit saturated fats intake and focus more on consuming unsaturated fats. Don’t think that saturated fats are unhealthy and should be avoided. On the contrary, we just need to level the playing field since we consume too many saturated fats without even realizing. If you think I am wrong, how often do you cook with butter or add cream to your coffee?
Another important factor we need to consider is the balance between the unsaturated fats. Our ancestors’ diets used to have a 1:1 ratio between the polyunsaturated fats omega-6 and omega-3. Due to the overuse of omega-6 vegetable cooking oils, today’s ratio is a staggering 16:1. Therefore, similar to saturated fats, you should actively lower your intake of omega-6 fats and increase your intake of omega-3 fats to balance out the ratio. Don’t worry as you’ll get enough omega-6 fats without even realizing it.
Lastly, we want to avoid trans fats at all costs. They are not natural and are harmful to our health. They can decrease blood vessel function and lead to strokes and coronary heart disease. Realistically, it is virtually impossible to have a diet with zero trans fats since they’ve been added to so many of our foods. However, being aware and actively avoiding them will make a enormous difference to your health.
How much fat to eat?
A general rule of thumb is that 30% of one’s diet should come from fats. From that 30%, one third (10%) should come from saturated fats, the other third (10%) from monounsaturated fats, and the last third (10%) from polyunsaturated fats. Don’t worry too much about counting the exact amount. Just make sure you’re having healthy fats at each meal and snacks and you’ll be fine. Adding a fish oil supplement may also be a good idea if you’re not getting optimal amounts of healthy fats.
Click the link bellow to download a chart giving examples of fats in each category.
Hopefully this condensed overview of dietary fats helped you understand the importance of fats in one’s diet and which ones to consume for optimal health. Next week’s topic is all about nutrient timing. If you’re eating healthy food but you are still not seeing results then you may want to stick around and learn about food timing.
P.S. If you’re still confused or wanting help on any of the topics covered in the nutrition 101 series, feel free to contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Paul Bissonnette B. Kin, CEP, CSCS, FMSC, Pn1
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- McArdle, W., Katch, F., & Katch, V. (2010). Exercise Physiology: Nutrition, Energy, and Human Performance (7 ed.). Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
- Poliquin Group Editorial Staff. (2013, November 13). Ten amazing benefits of eating fat. Retrieved from Poliquin Group: http://main.poliquingroup.com/articlesmultimedia/articles/article/1069/ten_amazing_benefits_of_eating_fat.aspx
- Poliquin Group Editorial Staff. (2016, May 4). Top ten healthy fats to add to your diet. Retrieved from Poliquin Group: http://main.poliquingroup.com/ArticlesMultimedia/Articles/Article/1463/Top_Ten_Healthy_Fats_To_Add_To_Your_Diet.aspx