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Fats - Definition of Fat in Nutrition - What are Helthy Fats?

When it comes to health and fitness, we often associate the word “fat” with something negative. But dietary fat is actually essential for your overall health and well-being. Here’s more about the different types of fat, their health benefits and risks, and the role of fat in a fitness and nutrition context.

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Key Takeaways

1) Fat is an essential nutrient that serves several important functions in the body, including energy storage, insulation, hormone production, cell membrane structure, and absorption of vitamins.
2) Not all fats are created equal, and excessive consumption of certain types of fats, such as trans fats and saturated fats, can have negative effects on health.
3) Healthy fats, such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, have been shown to have a positive effect on overall health and should be included in your diet.
4) Unhealthy fats, such as trans fats and saturated fats, should be limited in your diet to reduce the risk of chronic diseases.
5) Choosing healthy sources of fat, such as avocados, nuts, seeds, fatty fish, and vegetable oils, can help improve heart health, reduce inflammation, and lower the risk of chronic diseases.

Definition of Fat in Nutrition

What is fat? by George Zaidan – Courtesy of TED-Ed

In nutrition, “fat” refers to a group of organic compounds that are made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen molecules. Fats are an important source of energy for the body and are essential for the absorption of certain vitamins and minerals. Fats are also involved in many other functions in the body, including insulation and protection of organs, maintenance of cell membranes, and production of hormones.

Dietary fats can be categorized as saturated, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated based on their chemical structure. Saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature and are found in animal products such as meat, butter, and cheese. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature and are found in plant-based oils, such as olive oil and canola oil.

While fats are important for the body, it is also important to consume them in moderation as consuming too much can lead to health problems such as obesity, high cholesterol, and heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends that adults consume no more than 25-35% of their daily calories from fats, with less than 7% of those calories coming from saturated fats.

Types of Fat

There are three types of dietary fat: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. Saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature and are found in animal products such as meat, butter, and cheese. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature and are found in plant-based oils, such as olive oil and canola oil.

Saturated fats have long been associated with an increased risk of heart disease and high cholesterol levels. However, recent research has challenged this view, suggesting that not all types of saturated fats are harmful to health.

On the other hand, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats have been linked to numerous health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease, improved brain function, and lower inflammation levels.

Saturated Fat

Saturated fat is a type of fat that is typically solid at room temperature and is commonly found in animal-based foods, such as meat, butter, cheese, and other dairy products. It is also found in some plant-based sources, such as coconut oil and palm oil.

Pros: Saturated fat is an essential nutrient that provides our bodies with energy and helps us absorb important vitamins and minerals. It also plays a role in hormone production and cellular function. In addition, some studies have suggested that consuming moderate amounts of saturated fat may increase levels of “good” HDL cholesterol, which can lower the risk of heart disease.

Cons: Consuming high amounts of saturated fat has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, as it can raise levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol in the blood. High levels of LDL cholesterol can contribute to the buildup of plaque in the arteries, leading to atherosclerosis and an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

It is still recommended to consume saturated fats in moderation and to choose healthier sources of fats, such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, whenever possible.

Overall, while saturated fat is an essential nutrient, it is important to consume it in moderation and to choose healthier sources of fats whenever possible to reduce the risk of heart disease and promote overall health and well-being.

Examples of foods that are high in saturated fats:

  • Meat: Beef, lamb, pork, and other red meats are all high in saturated fats. Processed meats, such as bacon, sausage, and hot dogs, are also high in saturated fats.
  • Dairy products: Butter, cheese, cream, and full-fat milk are all high in saturated fats.
  • Coconut and palm oils: These plant-based oils are high in saturated fats.
  • Baked goods: Pastries, cookies, and other baked goods often contain high amounts of saturated fats due to the use of butter or shortening in the recipe.
  • Fried foods: Fried foods, such as french fries, fried chicken, and other fast food items, are often cooked in oils that are high in saturated fats.

It is important to note that not all sources of saturated fats are equally unhealthy. For example, some studies have suggested that dairy products, such as cheese and yogurt, may have neutral or even beneficial effects on cardiovascular health, despite their high saturated fat content.

It is still recommended to consume saturated fats in moderation and to choose healthier sources of fats, such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, whenever possible.

Monounsaturated Fat

Monounsaturated fat is a type of fat that is typically liquid at room temperature and is commonly found in plant-based foods, such as olive oil, avocado, nuts, and seeds. It is also found in some animal-based sources, such as poultry and eggs.

Monounsaturated Pros

Consuming monounsaturated fats has been associated with a number of health benefits. Studies have shown that diets rich in monounsaturated fats may help lower levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol, reduce inflammation in the body, and decrease the risk of heart disease. In addition, monounsaturated fats can help improve insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control, making them a good choice for individuals with type 2 diabetes.

Monounsaturated Cons

While monounsaturated fats are generally considered healthy, it is still important to consume them in moderation. Consuming large amounts of any type of fat can lead to weight gain and other health issues. In addition, some sources of monounsaturated fats, such as nuts and avocados, can be high in calories and should be consumed in moderation as part of a balanced diet.

Overall, consuming moderate amounts of monounsaturated fats can be a healthy part of a balanced diet and may provide a number of health benefits. It is still important to choose healthier sources of fats whenever possible, and to balance fat intake with other important nutrients, such as protein, fiber, and complex carbohydrates.

Examples of foods that are high in monounsaturated fats:

  • Olive oil: Olive oil is a staple of the Mediterranean diet and is rich in monounsaturated fats.
  • Avocado: Avocado is a fruit that is high in healthy fats, including monounsaturated fats.
  • Nuts: Almonds, cashews, peanuts, and pistachios are all high in monounsaturated fats. Other nuts, such as hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, and pecans, are also good sources of monounsaturated fats.
  • Seeds: Sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds are all good sources of monounsaturated fats.
  • Poultry: Chicken and turkey are both good sources of monounsaturated fats.
  • Eggs: The yolk of an egg is a good source of monounsaturated fats.

It is important to note that while these foods are high in monounsaturated fats, they should still be consumed in moderation as part of a balanced diet. In addition, it is important to choose whole, unprocessed foods whenever possible, and to avoid processed and fried foods that may be high in unhealthy fats and other additives.

Polyunsaturated Fat

Polyunsaturated fat is a type of fat that is typically liquid at room temperature and is found in a variety of plant-based and animal-based foods. It is characterized by the presence of multiple double bonds in the fatty acid chain, which gives it a unique chemical structure.

Polyunsaturated Pros 

Polyunsaturated fats are essential for overall health and have been associated with a number of health benefits. Studies have shown that consuming polyunsaturated fats can help lower levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol, reduce inflammation in the body, and decrease the risk of heart disease. In addition, polyunsaturated fats are important for brain function, skin health, and other important bodily functions.

Polyunsaturated Cons

While polyunsaturated fats are generally considered healthy, it is still important to consume them in moderation. Consuming large amounts of any type of fat can lead to weight gain and other health issues. In addition, some sources of polyunsaturated fats, such as vegetable oils, may be high in omega-6 fatty acids, which can contribute to inflammation when consumed in excess.

Overall, consuming moderate amounts of polyunsaturated fats can be a healthy part of a balanced diet and may provide a number of health benefits. It is still important to choose healthier sources of fats whenever possible, and to balance fat intake with other important nutrients, such as protein, fiber, and complex carbohydrates.

Examples of foods that are high in polyunsaturated fats:

  • Fish: Fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel, are excellent sources of polyunsaturated fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Nuts and seeds: Walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and hemp seeds are all high in polyunsaturated fats.
  • Vegetable oils: Soybean oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, and corn oil are all high in polyunsaturated fats.
  • Tofu: This soy-based product is a good source of polyunsaturated fats.
  • Avocado: This fruit is also high in polyunsaturated fats, as well as other healthy fats.
  • Whole grains: Whole grains, such as oats, quinoa, and brown rice, contain some polyunsaturated fats.

It is important to note that while these foods are high in polyunsaturated fats, they should still be consumed in moderation as part of a balanced diet. In addition, it is important to choose whole, unprocessed foods whenever possible, and to avoid processed and fried foods that may be high in unhealthy fats and other additives.

Health Benefits and Risks

While dietary fat is essential for our overall health, it is important to consume it in moderation. Consuming too much fat can lead to health problems such as obesity, high cholesterol, and heart disease. On the other hand, consuming too little fat can lead to a deficiency of essential fatty acids and other important nutrients.

To maintain a healthy balance of fats in the diet, it is recommended that adults consume no more than 25-35% of their daily calories from fats, with less than 7% of those calories coming from saturated fats. Choosing healthy sources of fats, such as avocados, nuts, and fatty fish, can provide numerous health benefits without the negative health consequences associated with excessive fat consumption.

 Good Fats Versus Bad Fats?

The terms “good fats” and “bad fats” are often used to describe different types of dietary fats and their impact on health. It’s important to note that not all fats are created equal and that it’s important to include some healthy fats in your diet while minimizing your intake of unhealthy fats. 

This can be achieved by choosing healthier sources of fat whenever possible, such as nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils, and by limiting your intake of processed and fried foods that may be high in unhealthy fats.

Here’s a brief overview:

Good fats: 

Good fats, also known as healthy fats, are types of fats that are beneficial for health when consumed in moderation. These include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which are found in foods like nuts, seeds, avocados, fatty fish, and vegetable oils. These types of fats have been shown to help lower cholesterol levels, reduce inflammation in the body, and decrease the risk of heart disease when consumed in place of unhealthy fats.

Examples of foods that are high in good fats:

  • Fatty fish: Salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines are all excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat that has been shown to have numerous health benefits.
  • Nuts and seeds: Almonds, walnuts, cashews, pistachios, chia seeds, and flaxseeds are all high in healthy fats, particularly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
  • Avocado: This fruit is high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, as well as other beneficial nutrients like fiber, potassium, and vitamins C and K.
  • Olive oil: This healthy oil is rich in monounsaturated fats and has been associated with a reduced risk of heart disease and other chronic conditions.
  • Nut butters: Peanut butter, almond butter, and other nut butters are also high in healthy fats, as long as they don’t contain added sugars or other unhealthy ingredients.
  • Whole grains: Whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, and whole wheat are also sources of healthy fats, as well as other important nutrients like fiber and protein.

Remember, while these foods are high in healthy fats, they should still be consumed in moderation as part of a balanced diet. It’s also important to choose whole, unprocessed foods whenever possible and to avoid foods that are high in unhealthy fats and other additives.

Bad fats: 

Bad fats, also known as unhealthy fats, are types of fats that can have a negative impact on health when consumed in excess. These include saturated fats, which are found in animal-based foods like meat, butter, and cheese, as well as in some plant-based sources like coconut oil and palm oil.

Trans fats, which are often found in processed and fried foods, are another type of unhealthy fat. Consuming too much of these types of fats has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, high cholesterol levels, and other health issues.

Examples of foods that are high in bad fats:

  • Red meat: Beef, pork, and lamb are all high in saturated fat, which can increase cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease when consumed in excess.
  • Butter and margarine: These types of spreads are also high in saturated fat and should be used sparingly.
  • Cheese: Most types of cheese are high in saturated fat, although some types like feta and goat cheese are lower in fat than others.
  • Fried foods: Fried foods like french fries, fried chicken, and onion rings are often high in unhealthy trans fats, which can increase the risk of heart disease and other health problems.
  • Processed snacks: Snack foods like potato chips, crackers, and cookies are often high in unhealthy fats like trans fats and saturated fats, as well as added sugars and other unhealthy ingredients.
  • Fast food: Many fast food items, such as burgers, fries, and milkshakes, are high in unhealthy fats and should be consumed in moderation or avoided altogether.

It’s important to note that not all fats in these foods are bad for you. For example, some cuts of red meat may contain healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids, and some types of cheese like cottage cheese and ricotta are lower in saturated fat than other types. However, it’s still a good idea to limit your intake of these foods and choose healthier options whenever possible.

Good Fat vs. Bad Fats

Courtesy of Dr. Eric Berg DC

What Fats Are Unhealthy Fats?

Unhealthy fats include both saturated and trans fats. Saturated fats are found in animal products like meat and dairy, as well as some plant-based sources like coconut oil and palm oil. Eating too much saturated fat can increase cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease and other health problems. 

Trans fats, on the other hand, are created when liquid vegetable oils are partially hydrogenated to make them more solid and stable. These fats are commonly found in processed snack foods, fried foods, and some types of margarine.

Like saturated fat, trans fat can increase the risk of heart disease and other chronic conditions. It’s important to limit your intake of both saturated and trans fats and choose healthier fats like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats instead.

Unhealthy fats include both saturated and trans fats, and can be found in a variety of foods. Here are some examples:

Saturated fats:

  • Butter and margarine
  • High-fat cuts of meat, such as beef and pork
  • Chicken with the skin
  • Cheese
  • Ice cream
  • Whole milk and cream
  • Coconut oil
  • Palm oil
  • Processed snack foods, such as chips and crackers

Trans fats:

  • Fried foods, such as French fries and fried chicken
  • Baked goods, such as cookies, cakes, and pastries
  • Snack foods, such as chips and crackers
  • Stick margarine
  • Shortening
  • Non-dairy creamers
  • Frozen dinners and other processed foods

It’s important to limit your intake of these unhealthy fats and choose healthier fats like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats instead.

What is Trans Fat?

Trans fat, also known as trans fatty acids, is a type of unhealthy fat that is created when liquid vegetable oils are partially hydrogenated to make them more solid and stable. Trans fats can be found in many processed snack foods, fried foods, baked goods, and some types of margarine.

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They are often used in these products because they are less expensive than other types of fats and can help extend the shelf life of the product.

Consuming too much trans fat can increase cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease and other chronic conditions. In fact, trans fat is considered one of the most harmful types of fat you can eat, and many health experts recommend avoiding it altogether.

To reduce your intake of trans fat, it’s important to read food labels carefully and choose foods that are labeled as “trans-fat-free,” or that contain little or no partially hydrogenated oils. Instead, choose healthier fats like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in nuts, seeds, fish, and vegetable oils.

Examples of foods that may contain trans fats:

  • Fried foods, such as French fries, chicken nuggets, and onion rings
  • Baked goods, such as cakes, cookies, pies, and pastries
  • Snack foods, such as crackers, chips, and popcorn
  • Frozen foods, such as frozen dinners, pizzas, and breakfast sandwiches
  • Margarine (especially stick margarine)
  • Shortening
  • Non-dairy creamers
  • Ready-to-use frosting
  • Coffee creamer
  • Doughnuts and other breakfast pastries
  • Fast food items, such as hamburgers, chicken sandwiches, and breakfast sandwiches

It’s important to read food labels carefully and avoid products that contain partially hydrogenated oils, which are a primary source of trans fats. Instead, choose healthier fats like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in nuts, seeds, fish, and vegetable oils.

What Fats, Are Healthy Fats?

Healthy fats include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which have been shown to have a positive effect on overall health. Here are some examples of foods that contain healthy fats:

Monounsaturated fats:

  • Olive oil
  • Avocado
  • Nuts, such as almonds, cashews, and peanuts
  • Nut butters, such as peanut butter and almond butter
  • Seeds, such as pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds
  • Canola oil
  • Sunflower oil

Polyunsaturated fats:

  • Fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel
  • Flaxseed and flaxseed oil
  • Chia seeds
  • Walnuts
  • Soybean oil
  • Corn oil
  • Safflower oil

Including healthy fats in your diet can help improve heart health, reduce inflammation, and lower the risk of chronic diseases. It’s important to choose these healthier fats in place of unhealthy fats like saturated and trans fats.

Role of Fat in a Fitness and Nutrition Context

Dietary fat can play an important role in a fitness and nutrition plan. Fats are a source of energy for the body and can help to regulate hormones, improve brain function, and support healthy skin and hair. In addition, incorporating healthy fats into a pre-workout meal can help to improve athletic performance and reduce post-workout inflammation.

Choosing the right types of fats can be a challenge, especially when it comes to optimizing athletic performance. Athletes may benefit from incorporating omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish and flaxseed oil, into their diet. These healthy fats have been linked to improved endurance, reduced muscle soreness, and improved recovery after exercise.

Fats and Hormones

In addition to their numerous health benefits, dietary fats can also play a role in hormone production and regulation. Some studies have suggested that consuming healthy fats, such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, can increase testosterone levels in men, which may have positive effects on muscle growth and athletic performance.

On the other hand, consuming too little fat can lead to a deficiency of essential fatty acids, which can impair hormone production and regulation. This can lead to a variety of health problems, including fatigue, decreased libido, and depression.

What Does Fat Do To Your Body?

Fat serves several important functions in the body:

  1. Energy storage: Fat is a concentrated source of energy, providing 9 calories per gram. It serves as a storage form of energy that the body can use when needed.
  2. Insulation: Fat also serves as an insulator, helping to maintain body temperature and protect organs.
  3. Hormone production: Some types of fat, such as cholesterol, are necessary for the production of hormones like testosterone, estrogen, and cortisol.
  4. Cell membrane structure: Fats are an essential component of cell membranes, which help to regulate what enters and exits the cell.
  5. Absorption of vitamins: Certain vitamins, such as vitamins A, D, E, and K, require fat for absorption and utilization by the body.

However, it’s important to note that excessive consumption of certain types of fats, such as trans fats and saturated fats, can have negative effects on health. These fats have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and other chronic health conditions. Therefore, it’s important to consume fats in moderation and choose healthier sources of fat, such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

Debunking Fat Myths

Despite the numerous health benefits associated with dietary fat, there are still many myths and misconceptions about this important nutrient. One of the most common myths is that all fats are bad for you. While excessive consumption of certain types of fats, such as trans fats, can have negative health consequences, consuming healthy fats in moderation can provide numerous health benefits.

Common Myths

Another common myth is that fat-free or low-fat foods are always healthier than their full-fat counterparts. In reality, many low-fat and fat-free products are loaded with sugar and other unhealthy ingredients to make up for the lack of fat. Choosing healthy sources of fats, such as avocados, nuts, and fatty fish, can provide numerous health benefits without the negative health consequences associated with excessive fat consumption.

Additionally, some people believe that consuming dietary fat will automatically make you gain weight. While consuming excessive amounts of fat can contribute to weight gain, it is important to remember that weight gain is primarily determined by overall calorie intake and energy balance. In fact, some studies have suggested that a higher fat diet can actually promote weight loss, as long as the overall calorie intake is controlled.

More Research On Fat & Fitness

Research papers and reports written by doctors:

  1. Dr. Walter Willett:
  • “Dietary fat and coronary heart disease: a comparison of approaches for adjusting for total energy intake and modeling repeated dietary measurements” (American Journal of Epidemiology, 1991)
  • “Trans fatty acids and cardiovascular disease” (New England Journal of Medicine, 1997)
  • “Healthy Eating: A guide to the new nutrition” (Harvard Health Publications, 2018)
  1. Dr. David Ludwig:
  • “Low-carbohydrate diets for treatment of obesity and type 2 diabetes” (Current Opinion in Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Obesity, 2012)
  • “High glycemic index foods, overeating, and obesity” (Pediatrics, 1999)
  • “Always Hungry? Conquer Cravings, Retrain Your Fat Cells, and Lose Weight Permanently” (book, 2016)
  1. Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian:
  • “Dietary fats, carbohydrate, and progression of coronary atherosclerosis in postmenopausal women” (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2004)
  • “Health effects of trans-fatty acids: experimental and observational evidence” (European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2009)
  • “Global dietary guidelines and environmental sustainability: the challenge of making it all fit” (The Lancet Planetary Health, 2019)
  1. Dr. Frank Hu:
  • “Dietary fat intake and the risk of coronary heart disease in women” (New England Journal of Medicine, 1997)
  • “Red meat consumption and mortality: results from 2 prospective cohort studies” (Archives of Internal Medicine, 2012)
  • “The obesity epidemic and the role of food marketing: a policy analysis of issues and remedies” (Health Affairs, 2010)
  1. Dr. Christopher Gardner:
  • “Comparison of the Atkins, Zone, Ornish, and LEARN diets for change in weight and related risk factors among overweight premenopausal women” (JAMA, 2007)
  • “Effect of reducing total fat intake on body weight: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials and cohort studies” (BMJ, 2012)
  • “Design of the Right Dose, Right Now Study: A Randomized Trial Evaluating the Effectiveness of Tailored, Adaptive Pharmacotherapy for Alcohol Use Disorders” (Journal of Addiction Medicine, 2018)
  1. Dr. Ronald Krauss:
  • “Dietary cholesterol, atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease” (Current Opinion in Lipidology, 2015)
  • “Dietary guidelines should reflect new understandings about adult protein needs” (Nutrition Today, 2016)
  • “Dietary interventions to lower blood pressure: a review of findings from randomized controlled trials” (Canadian Journal of Cardiology, 2016)

Conclusion

In conclusion, dietary fat is an essential nutrient for our overall health and well-being. Choosing the right types of fats and consuming them in moderation can provide numerous health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease, improved brain function, and hormone regulation. 

Fat is an essential nutrient that serves several important functions in the body, including energy storage, insulation, hormone production, cell membrane structure, and absorption of vitamins. However, not all fats are created equal, and excessive consumption of certain types of fats, such as trans fats and saturated fats, can have negative effects on health. 

Final Thoughts

It’s important to consume fats in moderation and choose healthier sources of fat, such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which have been shown to have a positive effect on overall health. By including healthy fats in your diet and avoiding unhealthy fats, you can improve heart health, reduce inflammation, and lower the risk of chronic diseases.

Incorporating healthy fats into a fitness and nutrition plan can improve athletic performance and aid in muscle growth and recovery. Go ahead and embrace healthy fats as a part of a balanced and nutritious diet!

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