A healthy diet consist of three macronutrients, carbohydrates, proteins and fats, and dozens of micronutrients. In this post, we are about to talk through one of the most commonly misunderstood nutrients: dietary fats. When we think of fats, the first thing that comes across our minds is: fats are bad. Right? This total misconception comes from all the low fat, non-fat products we come across every day, and of course, from the actual name of this macronutrient.
“Fat” is a collective term for dietary fats,structural fats and body fat. Dietary fats are the fats we consume from different food sources. Structural fats are used as a building material in your body for the cells, hormones, and brain components. Body fat is the storage of fat used as insulation of the vital organs and in some cases energy is found in fat cells in the form of triglycerides. Everybody has body fat, in fact we need body fat in order to be healthy. Body fat is not necessarily derived from the fats you eat.
Why do we need fats:
for energy and metabolism | hormonal balance (especially women-see below) | body temperature regulation | insulation of the vital organs | absorption of certain vitamins and minerals
There are two types of dietary fats: saturated and unsaturated. Most health organizations recommend that 20-35% of total calories should come from fats, placing a bigger emphasis on unstaturated fat sources. While carbohydrates and proteins give 4.2 kcal/g, fats provide 9.1kcal/g. So yes, fats are higher in calories than carbs or proteins, however they play a very important role in our health and wellbeing, so we do need to incorporate them in our everyday diet, even when the aim is to loose weight! For a healthy individual, daily recommendation would be around 1-1.2 grams/bodyweight (kg), but just like with every other macronutrients, it can depend on various factors, such as the individuals energy needs, genetics, and lifestyle.
The main difference between saturated and unsaturated fats is in their chemical structure. Saturated fats don’t have double bonds in their chemical structure like unstaturated fats, so they are tightly packed with hydrogen atoms. Because of their chemical structure, with a few exceptions, saturated fats are solid at room temperature, while unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. There are two types of unsaturated fats: monosaturated and polysaturated. Monosaturated fats contain only one double bond in their structures, while polysaturated fats contain two or more double bonds. All foods containing fat have a mix of different types of fats. Nuts for example are rich in unsaturated fats, but still have a small amounts of saturated fat. Saturated fats are mainly found in animal sources, but a few plant foods are also high in them, such as coconut, coconut oil and palm oil.
· plant oils · nuts and seeds · some types of fish · avocado · olives
For a long time, studies have shown that a high consumption of saturated fats can increase the low-density lipoprotein (LDL), otherwise called “bad cholesterol” levels and, therefore, can increase the risk of hearth disease. However, new contradicting studies are on the rise, which suggest that the type of LDL that is increased by high saturated fat intake is actually the large, buoyant LDL, which do not appear to increase the risk of heart disease. Still, most health organizations in the world recommend that most of your daily fat intake should come from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. So, it is important to incorporate a range of healthy unsaturated fats in your diet, but you do not have to avoid unstaurated fats at all cost. Sources such as cheese and butter can also fit into a healthy lifestyle in moderation.
As mentioned earlier fat has more calories per gram than proteins and carbohydrates, but it doesn’t mean that eating fats causes weight gain if not overconsumed. The body first uses the consumed protein and fats as building materials for cells, enzymes, hormones, etc., leaving fewer calories behind to be used as energy or to be stored as fat. On the contrary, calories of a high carb meal get used as immediate energy or in some scenarios gets stored as body fat. Eating a balanced diet that includes good dietary fat will promote better sleep, reduce cravings for unhealthy foods, and can make a significant change in body composition and mental health. Moreover the positive side-effects of looking and feeling better, some studies has shown that a proper diet rich in good dietary fats may also inhibit or reverse the aging process and make the immune system stronger.
Dietary fats and hormones
This is a very important topic especially for women, who tend to follow a low fat or even zero fat diet, that decreases the body’s ability to produce estrogen and progesterone hormones. All cells and hormones are made up from protein and fat, while sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone are made from cholesterol, which is a waxy, fat-like substance, partly made by the liver, partly consumed from food. Therefore if fat and cholesterol are cut out of the diet, there is no steady supply of estrogen, which can lead to estrogen deficiency in women of any age. The main symptoms of estrogen deficiency include insomnia, night sweats, heart palpitations, irregular or absent periods, very low sex-drive, headaches, mood swings and depression-like symptoms. Low-fat diet also interfere with the body’s serotonin production, which is a neurotransmitter necessary for regulating moods and contributing to a sense of well-being. To compensate this state, the body often craves simple carbohydrates and stimulants that quickly raise insulin levels, which causes a rapid release of serotonin from the brain’s storage supply. This temporarily improves mood, but it often results in a cycle of cravings and depression. Eating a healthy amount of good dietary fat alongside with proteins balances insulin levels, increases the production of serotonin, and helps stabilizing mood.
How can you make sure you wont exceed your daily dietary fat needs?
use a good quality non-stick pan, so you will not need that much of oil
sauté and bake with olive, coconut, canola, peanut or avocado oil
bake, broil, or grill instead of frying
chose whole, unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods
an extra tip: read nutrition labels carefully (most of the low-fat products are high in sugars and other additives)