Dietary fat contains more calories per gram than any other calorie source (carbohydrates and proteins). Because it is such a condensed source of calories, it is a common area of confusion. Despite some of the misinformation you may have heard, eating fat does not automatically cause weight gain or make you fat. Fat is an essential macronutrient, just like carbohydrates and protein. For young children (ages 1-3 years), 30-40% of the calories needed each day should come from fat. For older children and adolescents (ages 4-18 years), 25-35% of the calories needed each day should come from fat. For adults (ages 19 years and older), 20-35% of the calories needed each day should come from fat.
Fat on our body and in our daily intake is needed because it:
-Fat holds organs and nerves in position.
-Fat protects organs from trauma, injury, and shock.
-Fat is important for skin health.
-Fat pads the palms of our hands and our buttocks to protect bones in those areas.
-Fat preserves body heat thereby helping maintain body temperature.
-Fat balances hormones. Hormones are essential for every activity of daily living, including the processes of digestion, metabolism, growth, reproduction, and mood control.
-Fat provides an energy reserve to the body.
-Fat is essential for normal brain function.
-Fat is essential for growth and reproduction.
-Fat is necessary for the absorption of vitamin A, D, E, and K (called the fat soluble vitamins). Without fat in our diet, our body would not be able to use these fat soluble vitamins. Vitamin A is involved in vision, bone growth and skin. It promotes a healthy immune system and is essential for the growth and development of cells. Vitamin D strengthens our bones because it helps the body absorb calcium. Muscles need vitamin D to move and the immune system needs vitamin D to fight of viruses and harmful bacteria. Vitamin E is an antioxidant and helps protect the body’s cells from damage. It is also important for the health of red blood cells. Vitamin K is important for blood clotting and bone formation.
Fats are also important because they affect our satiety level (helps us feel and stay full). Additionally, fat is what often makes our food taste so good as it impacts the taste, texture, and flavor.
There are four types of fats: saturated, trans, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats.
Saturated fat includes animal products (meat, milk, cheese, butter) as well as coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils.
Trans fat is most commonly found in processed foods that are made of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (when an oil is made into a solid fat by adding hydrogen, a process called hydrogenation; done to increase the shelf life of a food product).
Monounsatured fat includes olive oil, canola oil, many nuts and nut oils, avocados, and eggs.
Polyunsaturated fat includes sun flower, safflower, corn, and soybean oils. It also includes soybeans, walnuts, flaxseed and flaxseed oil, tofu, and higher fat fish such as salmon, mackerel and herring.
Each of the four types of fats acts differently in our body. In order to understand this, you must first understand a bit about cholesterol. Cholesterol is considered a steroid (not a fat) and is a soft, waxy substance. Your body uses cholesterol to function normally and to produce certain hormones. HDL (commonly referred to as good cholesterol in the media) and LDL (commonly referred to as bad cholesterol in the media) are cholesterol transporters. LDL carries cholesterol to your body’s tissues for use. If there is cholesterol that your tissues don’t need, the excess cholesterol can be stored in your arteries and therefore be a risk for heart disease. Because of this, LDL (bad) cholesterol is the cholesterol that you want to keep low. HDL is commonly referred to as the good cholesterol because it picks up the excess cholesterol in your body and returns it to the liver for disposal. HLD (good) cholesterol is the cholesterol that you want to keep somewhat high as it has heart healthy properties.
Saturated fat increases LDL (bad) cholesterol and increases HDL (good) cholesterol. Because saturated fat increases LDL (bad) cholesterol, it is known to increase the risk of heart disease when consumed regularly in large amounts. Despite what you may think, it is safe to eat 10% or less of your calories from saturated fat.
Trans fats are believed to increase the risk of heart disease more so than saturated fats because it not only increases LDL (bad) cholesterol like saturated fats can, but they also lower HDL (good) cholesterol. It is recommended is to avoid trans fats. As time goes on, companies are changing their food production in order to lower or eliminate trans fats in their products.
Monounsaturated fat is considered the most heart healthy fat because it lowers LDL (bad) and increases HDL (good) cholesterol. Much of your needed fat intake should include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
Polyunsaturated fat also has heart healthy properties because it lowers LDL (bad) cholesterol. It is not considered quite as heart healthy as monounsaturated fat as it also lowers HDL (good) cholesterol. Polyunsatured fats include a group of fatty acids called“Omega-3 fatty acids” and include cold water fish (salmon, mackerel, and herring), flaxseed and flaxseed oil, and walnuts. Omega 3 fatty acids can lower inflammation throughout your body, thereby reducing your risk of heart disease. As stated above, much of your needed fat intake should include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.