1.8k words (6–8 mins to read)
We know that not all fat is created equal, and the types of fat you eat could be considered more important than the overall amount.
Indeed, to stay healthy, you should educate yourself on fat and start eating healthy fats more deliberately.
To start with, if you’ve ever wondered why we need fat in our diet or why fat is good for you it’s because fat is needed for a multitude of things, from hormones, to nerves, to cell layers, to helping us absorb certain vitamins (all but C and the B’s).
So if you don’t eat fat then things start working suboptimally and going awry, and you can tell if you’re dropping your fat intake too low by noticing you have excessively low energy and/or sex drive.
You also run the risk of becoming vitamin deficient (i.e. malnourished), because you don’t have sufficient fat to absorb them.
There are four major types of fats, with 2 being good, 1 being somewhat neutral and 1 being bad.
So when we say start eating healthy fats we mean that you should more deliberately focus your fat consumption into the 2 healthiest type of fat and limit the other two—saturated fat provides us with basically nothing but calories and trans fat does nothing but harm.
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats reduce your risk of heart disease.
They’re found in foods like fish, seeds, nuts, and vegetable oils (notably olive and flax).
Omega-3 fatty acids are one of the healthiest types of fat. It’s a polyunsaturated fat. There are various claims with omega-3, from cognitive improvements to aiding outcomes of cancer treatment, but there’s mixed results (especially when taken in supplement form) for cognitive improvements, cancer fighting, and others.
But regardless of how the evidence for these ancillary benefits finally turns out, omega-3 is a good fat, humans need to eat fat, and the evidence for the cardiovascular benefits of both unsaturated fats are pretty robust (1, 2)—so keep eating your nuts, fish, and seeds!
As an aside, you may have heard the idea circulating that we should actually reduce the omega 6 in our diet (which is also a polyunsaturated fat), but there’s really no need to do this, and instead you just want to increase your omega 3.
You should eat fish for omega 3. Supplementation appears to increase risk of atrial fibrillation.
There are no healthy saturated fats, although most fat sources contain both saturated and unsaturated fat—it’s the high saturated fat sources that you want to be aware of.
Diets high in saturated fat also make it a lot easier to gain excessive fat (itself an independent risk factor in CVD, 1, 2, 3, 4, as well as a host of other health issues) because of the high amount of calories in a small volume.
And trans fats is the fat to avoid as much as possible—although they’re found at low levels in some foods, like meat and dairy.
Animal products—but also some plants, like coconut and palm oil
Commercial baked goods—but being phased out in many places.
Cholesterol is a type of blood fat. It’s necessary. Without cholesterol we’d die. It’s carried in the blood as LDL cholesterol and HDL cholesterol.
Triglycerides are another type of blood fat. It’s also necessary.
It’s the levels of these different types of blood fat that we want to get under control.
Lipid basically means fat, and the optimal relationship for blood lipids is low triglycerides, low LDL, and high HDL.
To lower triglycerides you want to lose excess body fat (long term) and reduce simple and refined carbohydrates in your diet (short term).
To lower LDL you want to reduce the saturated fat in your diet.
In increase HDL you want to increase the unsaturated fats in your diet.
To lower LDL and increase HDL at the same time you can just replace the saturated fat in your diet for unsaturated fat.
Exercising and eating fibre also has beneficial effects on our blood lipid profile.
The recommended guidelines from the institute of medicine is for your total fat intake to be 20 to 35 percent of the calories in your diet.
However, what if you’re eating 3k+ calories a day? That upper recommendation could be too high as it’s unlikely you actually need 35% of 3k+ calories (1050) from fat.
The practical result of this is that you’d be wasting your calories on redundant fat, when instead you could be eating more vitamins, minerals, and protein and reaping the benefits you get from them.
The same reasoning applies with some of these ridiculously low calorie diets that are popular among those looking to lose weight; if you’ve dropped your daily calorie intake to 800 calories or something then you might not be eating enough fat, especially at the lower percentage recommendation.
[As an side, don’t do stuff like this. You should lose fat by a healthy and sustainable means.]
As such, a more robust recommendation is 0.6–0.8g of fat per kg of body weight.
Fat is over twice as calorically dense as protein or carbohydrates, so careful with fat as the calories can add up fast.
If your diet is low to moderate in calories (2k a day or less) then a fat portion the size of your thumb (per meal) is a good ballpark figure and starting point.
If your diet is higher in calories then a fat portion the size of 2 of your thumbs (per meal) is a good ballpark figure and starting point.
If you notice your energy levels becoming excessively low (such as routinely tired, want to sleep, don’t want to get up, haven’t got the energy, etc.) and/or your sex drive is not what it normally is, then your fat intake might be too low.
If you don’t notice these things then your fat intake is likely fine. As such, if you’re looking to lose weight then you can begin to cut the fat from your diet as this will give you the biggest bang for your buck (as far as calories per volume of food goes).
The reason that eating healthy fats to lose weight is sometimes given is that monounsaturated fats have an easier time being oxidised (converted into energy), as can be seen here for example.
However, eating a bunch of healthy fats won’t necessarily help with weight loss because weight loss is determined by energy balance, so no matter how easy it is for monounsaturated fat to be converted into energy, if we have too much of it our energy balance is going to be positive and therefore we’ll gain weight.
Further, if we don’t use that monounsaturated fat for our energy needs straight away it’ll be shuttled into storage (our fat cells), at which point converting it back into usable energy is the same for whatever energy source it came from originally (fat, carbs, protein, alcohol).
As such, the idea of eating healthy fats to lose weight is not, really, a thing to pay any attention to.
Trans fat is being phased out, and many restaurants and food manufacturers have stopped using trans fats altogether, but they still exist so check for yourself.
Read the ingredients on the label to see if they contain any partially hydrogenated oils.
Ignore the nutritional label because things can be excluded from the label if their caloric value is low enough. They will still be in the ingredients list, though.
Fill up your plate with natural foods including vegetables and whole grains. It’s the simplest way to increase vitamins, minerals and to avoid the unhealthy fats in fast food and processed snacks.
Further to this, the high vitamin, mineral, and nutrient content of wholefoods is likely what makes them protective (such as for cognitive function, dementia, blood pressure, breast cancer, all cause mortality, cardiovascular disease and cancer, chronic diseases, and stroke, to name a few of the benefits).
A whole food is basically something your grandparents would recognize as a single food item. For example, a potato is a whole food. Potato chips, which have multiple ingredients and aren’t recognizable as potatoes, are not.
Healthy fats tend to be liquid at room temperature, so reach for oils instead of butter or margarine, such as dipping your bread in olive oil and cooking with canola oil.
Look for alternatives to red meat and whole fat dairy products. Dine on three bean chili instead of hamburger. Drink skim milk or low fat milk instead of the whole fat variety.
Pizza and cheese are the biggest sources of saturated fat in the typical American diet, so satisfy your cravings for Italian food with pasta in marinara sauce.
Eating fish at least twice a week is an excellent way to cut back on saturated fat. Fatty fish like salmon, albacore tuna, and mackerel will have the highest omega-3 content.
■ ▲ ●
Improve your overall health by cutting down on saturated fats, eliminating trans fats, and eating more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
Practically, this translates into less red meat and cheese and more beans, fish, flaxseed, vegetable oils and low fat dairy products.
Anecdotally, you’ll also feel a lot better, too!
Login to your account