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The Importance of Dietary Fats

Young woman about to cook in kitchen asking for help deciding what is healthy to eat.

The Many Functions of Fat

Fat is a nutrient that provides a source of energy for the body; it is required for the absorption of certain nutrients and is necessary for insulation, temperature regulation, and cell growth. The human brain is also made up of approximately 60% fat, and so, it's clear that adequate intake of dietary fat is important for the body and brain to function properly.

Fad Diets

Following a fad diet, such as those that promote extreme calorie and fat restriction, can be more harmful to your health than you think. Although people can initially lose weight when following these types of diets, it is very common for them to gain the weight back just as quickly, because these diets are simply not sustainable and cannot be followed over long periods of time. The body has calorie and nutrient requirements and, if these are not met, it could cause long-term complications. Before starting any new diet, you should speak with a doctor or registered dietitian to determine whether it is a safe and healthy option for you.

Healthy vs. Unhealthy Fats and Food Sources

Healthy Fats: Unsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats are an essential part of a healthy diet. These fats can help improve cholesterol health, lower the presence of inflammation in the body, and can reduce a person’s risk for heart disease. Unsaturated fats can be found in many different types of foods as well as several cooking oils; oils made of this type of fat will be liquid at room temperature. There are two main types of unsaturated fats: monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Here are some examples of foods that contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats:

  • Monounsaturated Fats: Avocados, Olives/Olive Oils, Canola Oil, Almonds, Hazelnuts, and Sesame Seeds

  • Polyunsaturated Fats: Soybean Oil, Corn Oil, Sunflower Oil, and Walnuts

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat and are a crucial component of a healthy diet. Multiple research studies have shown that adequate dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids can decrease inflammation within the body and is beneficial for brain and heart health. To get the required amount of omega-3 fatty acids through the diet, it is recommended that a person eat at least 2 servings of fatty fish each week. Here are some examples of foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids:

  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Salmon, Albacore Tuna, Mackerel, and Flaxseed/Flaxseed Oil

Unhealthy Fats: Saturated and Trans Fats. Excess intake of these types of fats can raise the levels of harmful cholesterol in the body, promote inflammation within the body and can lead to obesity. These fats can also contribute to the buildup of plaque within the arteries and increase a person’s risk for heart disease and stroke. Saturated fats should be limited to less than 10% of your total daily calorie intake. It is recommended that the intake of foods containing artificial trans fats be avoided all together.

Over the years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been working to eliminate the use of artificial trans fats in any food product; however, it is still important to thoroughly examine the food labels on products. It is legal for companies to use up to 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving in food products and, on the label, claim that it contains 0 grams of trans fat. Look for the word “partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredients list; this ingredient indicates that there is a source of trans fat within the food item. Here are some examples of foods that contain saturated and trans fats:

  • Saturated Fats: Butter, Coconut Oil, Red Meat, and Dairy Products

  • Trans Fats: Partially Hydrogenated Oils, Margarine, Processed/Packaged Foods, Fried Foods, and some Baked Goods. Trans fats are also found naturally, in small amounts, in food products that contain beef and dairy fat.

Balancing Your Fat Intake

All fats are calorie dense, which is why the serving size is generally smaller than other foods. When incorporating fats into the diet, aim for mostly mono- and polyunsaturated fats, while limiting saturated fat intake and avoiding trans fats. But don’t avoid fats all together! They are a very important part of a well-balanced diet, so remember to add healthy fats into your plate of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins.

Learn more about healthy eating and other wellness programs offered by Wellness Workdays.

Written by: Onycha Carlson, Wellness Workdays Dietetic Intern




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