Fat. Often labeled as 'the bad guy,' much like carbs, it can get a bad rap. But the truth fat alone does not make you fat, and your body needs a certain amount of fat to function its best.
The body uses fat as an energy source during longer endurance workouts and lower intensity exercise. And dietary fats play an essential role in cell growth, balancing healthy hormones, protecting your organs, regulating body temperature, and nutrient absorption.
But all fats are not created equal. The fat in an avocado or walnut for example is not the same as the fat in chip or muffin. So let's explore the differences between good and bad fats so you can feel empowered to make better food choices that support your goals.
Understanding The "Good" vs. "Bad" Fat.
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat. These are considered the nutritional good guys. Monounsaturated fats have been shown to decrease bad cholesterol (LDL) while maintaining good cholesterol (HDL). And research shows both mono and poly unsaturated fats are beneficial for heart health, supporting healthy cholesterol levels, and play an important role in your overall health. Plus consuming foods containing healthy fats increase feelings of satisfaction and satiety, helping you feel fuller longer.
Saturated and trans fats. These are classified as the bad fats due to their link to increased risk of heart disease, clogged arteries, elevated bad cholesterol levels, and negatively impact overall health. In fact, studies have shown that even small amounts of trans fat can lower good cholesterol (HDL) and raise bad cholesterol (LDL), increasing risk of heart disease and stroke. Yikes!
The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat consumption to just 5-6% of your daily calorie consumption. For example, if someone who consumes 1600 calories a day that equates to about 10-11 grams of saturated fat... and those fats can add up quick!
What Foods Contain Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated Fats?
"Good" fats are commonly found in:
Nut butter and seed butters
What Foods Contain Saturated and Trans Fats?
"Bad" fats are typically found in animal products:
Fatty cuts of beef, pork and lamb
Dark chicken meat
Whole fat dairy products
Deep fried foods such as french fries, doughnuts and fast foods
Pre-packaged snack foods such as candy bars, cookies, crackers and microwave popcorn
Baked goods such as pastries, muffins, pizza doughs, cakes and breads
The "Aha!" Moment.
You may be noticing that the good fats are most commonly found in healthier foods, coming from animals, plants, or trees, whereas the bad fats tend to be found in processed foods, typically coming from boxes, bags, and fast food restaurants.
Eating Better and Balancing Fat.
1. Read nutrition labels. It's important not only to know what type of fat you're consuming, but also how much. Fat is more calorically dense than protein and carbs, packing 9 calories per gram. So you want to be mindful of how many of your daily calories are coming from fat versus the other macronutrients in order to support a healthy daily calorie balance. This is especially important if you're working toward a weight loss goal.
2. Know your numbers. The USDA recommends healthy adults get 20-35% of their daily calories from fat, limiting saturated and trans fats to just 10% of their daily calories. How do you know where you fit in that range? A few general guidelines are if you're trying to lose weight you'll want to stick toward the lower end of that spectrum, whereas athletes or individuals looking to maintain their current weight will likely be somewhere in the middle to upper end of that spectrum. Other factors to consider are your current health and energy needs. A nutritionist can help you determine your ideal calories for weight loss and how fat fits into that equation considering your current health, fitness, and overall wellness goals.
A Word About Fat-Free.
Are fat-free foods healthier? The short answer is no. While food trends and clever marketing may make you think fat is the enemy, it's not that black and white. In recent years more and more food companies have been trending toward fat-free and trans fat-free versions of their products, recognizing consumers desire to reduce their unhealthy fat intakes.
Unfortunately this does not always translate to a "healthier" food product. Take a closer look at those nutrition labels to get a real picture as to what you're about to eat. In many cases fat will be replaced with some other preservative (sugar and salt being the most common). If you notice a host of ingredients you can't pronounce, then you're in trouble. A good rule of thumb is if you don't recognize an ingredient or couldn't spell it in a spelling bee, then your body won't recognize it either. So read those nutrition labels!
The take home: despite clever marketing and dietary fads, fat is an essential macronutrient:
Fat protects your vital organs
Fat provides the thermal insulation that helps you maintain core body temperature
Fat is the body's primary energy source while at rest and during steady states of low to moderate intensity exercise
Fat supplies essential fatty acids, which in turn supports your ability to absorb fat-soluble vitamins and form cell membrane structure
Fat gives texture to your food which translates to greater satisfaction and satiety
Bottom line: while the word “fat” may conjure up some less than desirable images, it's important to recognize the essential role fat plays in our overall health and well-being. We all need fat, in moderation, to support healthy body function. By understanding the difference between "good" and "bad" fats, you're able to promote a healthy balance, coupled with protein and complex carbs so you can feel, move, and perform at your best! So go ahead and nosh on the nuts, throw some sliced avocado on your green salad, and grill up some salmon, your healthy heart will thank you!
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