Think back through today’s meals so far. Can you name what types of fat you ate? For most people, this is a tough question. You see, fat is found naturally and often not-so-naturally in many of the foods we eat. Fat provides taste, a certain consistency, and stability. All foods that contain fat, from ice cream to oats, to chicken all have a “blend” of specific types of fats. Some foods have a better blend of fats than others.
In the past two years, media has been abuzz and claiming “Butter is Back!” due to a large scientific review and meta-analysis of over 76 studies involving over 600,000 participants in 18 countries on the topic of fatty acid exposure. “Exposure” basically meaning how much fat did people have floating around in their body (lab values and fat stores) and how much did they eat. The problem with that review was mainly in the blatant omission of studies showing significant results and incorrect interpretation of results. It missed the point! Just know, that this is another important reason to always read beyond the headline. And with that, let’s talk more about fat.
Why does the body need fat?
- It helps with normal growth and development
- Provides energy and is 9 calories per gram. The most energy dense of all macronutrients.
- Helps with absorbing vitamins like A, D, E, K, and certain carotenoids
- Provides cushioning for your internal organs
- Stabilizes cell membranes
Are there different types of fat?
Yes, there are many types of fat, and I wish I could have you listen to a lecture given by my former Advanced Macronutrient professor at ASU. I won’t go over all the types of fat, but I’ll give you the quick and dirty on the main four that you hear about most often; polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, saturated fats, and trans-fats.
Polyunsaturated fats (PUFA)
Found in: sunflower, corn, soybean, flaxseed oils, walnuts, flax seeds, fish, canola oil
Bonus! Omega-3 fats are a super important type of PUFA. Studies show a lower risk of premature death for those with high intakes.
Monounsaturated fats (MUFA)
Found in: olive, peanut, and canola oils, avocados, nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, pecans), and seeds (pumpkin and sesame)
Most people don’t get enough of these types of fat! When you use these types of fats in place of saturated fats, you can lower your risk of heart disease by lowering blood pressure and improving blood lipid levels (HDL and LDL).
You have most likely heard of this type of fat because of FDA regulations requiring food manufacturers to list the amount on the nutrition facts panel. Although I don’t like to place labels on things, trans-fats are pretty toxic. Some meat and dairy products naturally contain some trans-fats, but most is formed in a factory. When hydrogen is added to vegetable oils, creating “partially hydrogenated” oils, it causes the oil to become solid at room temperature. Manufacturers do this so their products are less likely to spoil and have a longer shelf life. Many fast food joints used oils with trans-fats in their deep fryers so they didn’t have to change it as often. Yuck.
This type of fat has been the subject of many studies over the years. Is it good, is it bad? Actually, it’s not as black and white as you may think, and there’s no “all good” or “all bad.” The fact is, even healthier foods like nuts or chicken have small amounts of saturated fat. Higher amounts of saturated fat are found mainly in animal foods like dairy products, meat, poultry, and pork, but there are a few plant foods as well like coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil.
Oh yeah, what about coconut oil? I recently bought some.
This plant-based oil is actually a type of saturated fat, but not the same type of saturated fat found in a cheese steak or a stick of butter. Coconut oil contains Medium Chain Triglycerides which are fatty acids of medium length. Most of the fatty acids in your diet are long-chain, but the medium chains found in coconut oil are metabolized very differently. They go straight to the liver from the digestive tract, where they’re used for a quick energy source or turned into ketone bodies. There is strong data that shows that coconut oil actually raises the “bad” LDL cholesterol but at the same time raises the “good” HDL even more! Crazy, right? The jury is still out on whether or not it’s good in the long-term, but in the meantime, give it a try and see how you like it. I like to use it for baking and sauteeing. Let’s face it, though, the more you cut out the packaged high saturated fat foods like chips and cheese, the more room you have for even better for foods like coconut oil. Choices.
I’m still confused! One day I’m told to eat butter and red meat, the next I hear it’s all bad for me?
First of all, anytime you’re isolating an individual nutrient within the diet, like fat, it can get misleading. Looking at the most current research, when you cut back on fat, you’re more than likely going to replace it with more carbohydrates, often the refined kind. Think white bread, chips, crackers, candy, etc. Eating those refined carbs in place of saturated fat can lower the “bad” LDL cholesterol, but it also ends up lowering the “good” HDL cholesterol and increases your triglycerides. This can be just as bad for the heart as eating a consistent diet of foods high in fat and sodium! Also, you don’t get fat, specifically saturated fat, from just food. Your body also synthesizes it in the liver when you consume excess calories and refined carbohydrates, like sugar.
Bottom line: You’re not going to have trouble including the good types of fat when you eat whole, balanced foods. As I’ve talked about before, research has found that the best kind of diet focuses on overall diet pattern and quality, not nutrient by nutrient. Foods that are minimally processed and close to nature, including vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and whole grains are going to the best bet!