In American culture, fat is a dirty word: a derogatory description of both food and the body. Popular media leads us to believe that there is a direct correlation between those who are overweight and those who eat fat. This concept directed a diet craze in the nineties that promised slim bodies to those who cut fat from their diet and solely consumed naturally fat-free and highly processed fat-free foods. Fifteen years later, this nation struggles with an obesity epidemic like never before in history. As with all matters of nutrition, oversimplification of any subject leads to a general misunderstanding of what to eat and, as a result, an unbalanced diet and potential health risks. The relationship of eating fat to the health of the body requires a simple understanding of the types of fat present in food and how best to consume it to balance your diet.
First, it is important to understand the relationship between the human body and nutrients. The body requires consumption of the macronutrients fat, protein, and carbohydrates in large amounts, and micronutrients, like vitamins and minerals, in smaller amounts. Fat is essential for growth, metabolism, and maintenance of the body. It provides energy to the body, makes it possible for other nutrients to do their job, enables the body to transport, store, and absorb important vitamins A, D, E, and K, and is therefore crucial for optimal body function. Quite simply, fat is a critical addition to the diet, necessary not only for the health of your body but also for overall survival. However, all fat is not considered equal, and some fat, in fact, can have a negative effect on the body.
Fat is classified into four categories: saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and trans fats. Whether or not these fats are defined as “good” or “bad” depends on how the body reacts when they are consumed in small and large quantities.
Saturated fats are completely saturated fat molecules that are generally more solid at room temperature. The largest amount of saturated fat is found in animal products such as beef, lamb, pork, the skin of poultry, and dairy products including, but not limited to, butter, cream, cheese, and other products made from 2 percent milk. Foods from plants that contain saturated fat include coconut, coconut oil, palm oils, palm kernel oil (also called tropical oil), and cocoa butter.
While bodies can withstand saturated fat in moderation, consistent consumption over a long period increases health risks. Most concerning, consistent long-term consumption may increase inflammation throughout the body and high blood cholesterol levels. According to the American Heart Association, an increase in blood cholesterol levels can lead to cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Monounsaturated fats are not completely saturated by fat molecules. They are found in olives and olive oil, canola oil, peanuts and peanut oil, most nuts and ground nut oils (except walnuts and walnut oil), and avocados. They are often referred to as omega-9 fatty acids.
The positive and negative health consequences of including monounsaturated fat in the diet are widely debated. Generally, health experts agree that monounsaturated fats are neither good nor bad for your health, although some may argue that they reduce the risk for developing heart disease.
Like monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats are not completely saturated by fat molecules. They are found in safflower oil, grapeseed oil, and sunflower oil as well as oily fish such as sardines, mackerel, trout, salmon, and herring. When found in fish, they are often referred to as omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Polyunsaturated fats are considered good for our health, especially omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. According to the American Heart Association, omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids may help lower blood cholesterol levels and protect us from heart disease as well as help reduce the symptoms of arthritis, joint problems, and some skin diseases.
Trans fats, also referred to as partially hydrogenated oil, do not occur naturally. They are created in an industrial process in a factory. They are used in industrially produced foods because they are cheap to produce, add flavor, and extend the shelf life of the food. They are found in industrially produced cookies, crackers, cakes, pies, pastries, potato chips, margarine, and shortening as well as fried foods like French fries and doughnuts.
Consuming trans fats raises your risk of stroke and developing heart disease by potentially increasing your bad cholesterol level (LDL cholesterol) and lowering your good cholesterol level (HDL cholesterol). Eating trans fats does not promote health and, in fact, may hurt your health.
To determine the amount of fat needed in your diet, consider that your total fat consumption should be limited to 20–35 percent of your total calorie intake. The majority of your fat, around 20–25 percent of your fat allowance, should be monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats like fish, nuts, and vegetable oils. Saturated fats like beef, lamb, pork, and dairy products should be limited to 5–7 percent of your total fat intake. Finally, limit the amount of trans fat like highly processed cakes, cookies, and crackers in your diet to 1 percent.
1. Based on your daily caloric intake, calculate your daily fat intake in calories.
Multiply your daily calorie intake by .20 and .35 to determine the range of calories from fat you should consume on a daily basis. For example, if you eat 2,000 calories a day, your total daily fat intake should be somewhere between 400 to 700 calories.
2. Convert your daily fat intake in calories to your daily fat intake in grams.
Fat provides 9 calories per gram. Divide your daily fat intake in calories by 9. For example, if you eat 2,000 calories a day and need somewhere between 400 to 700 calories in daily fat, then you need 44 to 78 grams of fat per day.
3. Calculate your daily saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, and trans fat.
Use the above guidelines to determine the calories and/or grams of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, and trans fat your body needs daily. For example, if you eat 2,000 calories a day, you need 400 to 500 calories or 44 to 55 grams of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat, 100 to 140 calories or 11 to 16 grams of saturated fats, and 20 calories or 2 grams of trans fat.
- Balance your fat. The best way to develop a diet focused on 20–35 percent of good fat is to determine the type of fat consumed in your current diet. Keep a fat food journal for two weeks, writing fats you eat daily. At the end of two weeks, categorize the types of fats you are eating into saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, and trans fat. Now, determine your personalized fat prescription using the formula in this article and make adjustments accordingly.
- Make it easy. If counting calories and fat causes you stress, simply emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish, and nuts in your diet. Limit red meat and sugary foods and beverages.
- Limit trans fats. Avoid commercially packaged cookies, crackers, muffins, pies, and cakes, and commercially fried foods like doughnuts and French fries. Also note that companies in the United States are required to list the amount of trans fat in their food on the nutrition label if the amount is 0.5 grams or more per serving. The trans fat is listed separately below the “total fat.” Understand that even if the label indicates 0 grams of trans fat, there may be some trans fat, if the amount per serving is below 0.5 grams. If you are unsure, also check the ingredient list for partially hydrogenated oil.