The fats of life

Fats are another nutrient that often get a bad rap but they are also something that should be included in your diet on a daily basis.

How much should I eat?

You should strive for 6 tsps of fats/oils a day (amount based on a 2000 calorie meal plan). You want to make most of your intake unsaturated fats, limit the amount of saturated fats in your diet, and try to avoid trans fats as much as possible.

It is also important to note that although unsaturated fats are good for you, they are still high in calories. Fats are 9 kcal per gram. This means that for every gram of fat, that’s 9 calories you’re eating. So let’s say you’re eating some almonds and they have 20 g of fat. Multiply 20 by 9 to get the amount of calories from fat (180 calories in this example). Carbs and protein, on the other hand, are 4 kcal per gram while alcohol is 7 kcal per gram. Just multiply the grams by the appropriate number to get the amount of calories.

Function of fat

Fats constitute a healthy part of the diet (if you choose the right ones of course). Fats that are found in fish and oils like olive oil can protect our hearts and lower our risk of heart disease. Fats are also responsible for releasing hormones that suppress our appetites and tell us to stop eating. In addition, essential fatty acids are necessary for the transport and absorption of the fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K).

Types of fats

There are a few types of fats and it is important to understand each when making healthy food choices. Here is a breakdown of each:

  • Unsaturated fats: lower bad (LDL) cholesterol, lower your risk of heart disease and stroke, provide fats your body needs like omega 3 fatty acids(cannot make them on its own).
    • monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature but become solid when subject to cold temps. They have one double bonded carbon in the molecule. These fats can raise good cholesterol.
    • polyunsaturated fatsare liquid at room temp and colder temps, and have more than one double bonded carbon in the molecule. These fats lower both good and bad cholesterol. Although they are lowering your bad cholesterol, they also lower your good cholesterol. So it is important to make sure to eat foods that are high in monounsaturated fats so you can get that good cholesterol back up to a good level.
      • Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats found naturally in oily fish, nuts, seeds, and leafy green vegetables. Omega-3 fatty acids are thought to protect against heart disease, inflammation, certain types of cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and macular degeneration (a leading cause of vision loss). Omega-3 fatty acids are critical for proper brain development and neurological function in developing babies, too.The term omega-3 comes from the placement of the double bond. This means that the double bond is 3 away from the methyl end of the fat.
      • Omega-6 fatty acids are important for the health of the skin, and play an important role in lowering cholesterol and enabling blood clotting. Unfortunately, when not properly balanced with omega-3 fatty acids, the omega-6 fatty acids can go too far in promoting clot formation, making the blood sticky and increasing the risk of heart attacks and stroke. The omega-3 fatty acids moderate this reaction and promote proper clotting and heart health. The term omega-6 comes from the placement of the double bond in the unsaturated fat. This means that the double bond is 6 away from the methyl end.
  • Saturated fats: These fats have no double bonds like the poly and monounsaturated fats. They are also solid at room temp. They raise your “bad” cholesterol and also raise your risk of heart disease and stroke
  • Trans fats: These fats have double bonds but in a different configuration from the unsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats tend to have a cis configuration which results in a bent molecule. Trans fats tend to have the trans configuration which results in a straight molecule. Saturated fats can never be made into trans fats because they do not contain double bonds. Unsaturated fats are made into trans fats through a process called ‘hydrogenation’ which causes vegetable oils (unsaturated fats) to harden. These fats raise your “bad” cholesterol”, lower your “good” (HDL) cholesterol, raise your risk of heart disease and stroke

I thought a few visuals might help with the chemistry part. So the first picture is a picture of a saturated fat and unsaturated fat so you can see the chemical make up of both. The second picture is a picture of a trans fat and unsaturated fat so you can compare.

As you can see in the first picture, the saturated fat contains no double bonds. But the unsaturated fat contains 1 double bond making it a monounsaturated fat.

In the second picture, you can see that the unsaturated fat has 1 double bond and the hydrogen atoms are on the same side making it a cis configuration. However, in the trans fat, the hydrogen atoms are on opposite sides of the double bond, making it a trans configuration.

I also thought it would be useful to include a picture of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids.

Image Detail

As you can see, the first double bond in the first 3 pictures is 3 away from the methyl end (count each point). That means those first 3 pictures are of omega 3 fatty acids. The last  2 pictures are of omega 6 fatty acids because the first double bond is 6 away from the methyl end.

If you don’t understand all of this, that is okay. I had to learn all of this until I was blue in the face. Dietetics is a very science based degree. It’s kind of cool understanding the chemical makeup but it’s not necessary in order to eat a healthy diet. I just thought I would put this info in the post in case anyone was interested in the chemical makeup.

Which foods contain which kinds of fats?

  • Unsaturated fatsare found in vegetable oils (like olive oil, canola oil, or sunflower oil, avocados, peanut butter, fatty fish, and many nuts and seeds
    • Monounsaturated fats: olive and canola oils, Pecans, hazelnuts, almonds, avocado, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, peanut oil, and grape seed oil
    • Polyunsaturated fats: fish, safflower oils, sunflower oils, corn oils, soybean oils, tofu, flaxseed
      • Omega 3 fatty acids are found in oily fish, nuts, seeds, and leafy green vegetables
      • Omega 6 fatty acids are found in eggs, chicken, vegetable oils, pastries, leafy vegetables and nuts
  • Saturated fats are found in many animal foods (like fatty beef, poultry with skin, lard, cream, butter, cheese, and whole milk), baked goods, fried foods, coconut oil (the interesting thing about coconut oil though is that research has shown that the saturated fats in coconut oil may actually have a different structure from other saturated fats and that they may actually benefit the brain. However, no concrete research has been found yet).
  • Trans fats are found in baked goods such as pastries, pie crusts, biscuits, cookies, crackers, shortenings, stick margarine, and many processed foods. These fats form when vegetable oil hardens (a process called hydrogenation) and can raise LDL levels. They can also lower HDL levels (“good cholesterol”). Read ingredient labels very carefully. Even though the nutrition label may say there are 0 grams of trans fat in the product, that doesn’t mean the product doesn’t contain any trans fats. If “partially hydrogenated fats” are listed in the ingredients list, that means there can be up to 0.5 g of trans fats per serving. We are supposed to eat as little trans fats as possible and 0.5 g may not seem like a lot but if you eat more than one serving of that food or eat lots of foods that contain 0.5 g of trans fats, it will add up very quickly. Please be very aware of what you are putting in your body. It could really mean the difference between life and death.

How do I limit unhealthy fats in my diet?

– Try to choose lean cuts of meat or protein. If you do feel the need to have the full fat version, try to only do so every once in awhile. I am human too. I don’t eat just lettuce all day long. If you follow my blog you will see that I have made my share of both healthy and unhealthy recipes. I believe that although it is important to eat healthy, it is also important to enjoy what you eat. So if I want a piece of pizza or a piece of cake, I don’t deny myself. I try to make healthy choices as much as possible. It’s all about balance.

– Instead of frying food, try roasting, grilling or stir frying.

– Again, read ingredients labels very carefully.- Choose lean, protein-rich foods such as soy, fish, skinless chicken, very lean meat, and fat-free or 1% dairy products.
-Eat foods that are naturally low in fat such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
-Get plenty of soluble fiber such as oats, bran, dry peas, beans, cereal, and rice.
-Limit fried foods, processed foods, and commercially prepared baked goods (donuts, cookies, crackers).
-Limit animal products such as egg yolks, cheeses, whole milk, cream, ice cream, and fatty meats (and large portions of meats).
-Look at food labels, especially the level of saturated fat. Avoid or limit foods high in saturated fat.
-Look on food labels for words like “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” — these foods are loaded with bad fats and should be avoided.
-Liquid vegetable oil, soft margarine, and trans fatty acid-free margarine are preferable to butter, stick margarine, or shortening.


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