Macronutrients: The Skinny on Fat

Is fat bad for me?

This is a question I hear often and it’s no wonder considering it’s impossible to walk down an aisle at the grocery store without seeing food labels proudly displaying “Low Fat” and “Fat Free” marketing. Are these the foods we should be eating if we want to be healthy?

What is a fat?

Fats are composed of fatty acids and the chemical arrangement of these molecules determine whether it’s a saturated, unsaturated, or trans-fat. Fats are one of the 3 macronutrients and play a key role (about 30-40%) in a balanced diet. Fats as an energy source differ from carbohydrates and proteins because they provide 9 calories per gram while carbohydrates and proteins both provide 4 calories per gram. If nutrition were so simple as to discern healthfulness of a food based simply off of the number of calories, then we could stop right here. Clearly, this isn’t the case.

Trans Fats

First of all, I don’t recommend eating trans fats. These were created in a lab by turning unsaturated fats into solids, for example margarine. They are also called “partially hydrogenated oils” and have been shown to increase an individual’s risk for cardiovascular disease. Reducing your intake of trans fats is shown to decrease LDL (bad cholesterol) as seen in this study.

Saturated Fats

Saturated fat is a little less cut and dry. Sources of saturated fat are butter, coconut oil, animal meat, dairy and eggs. An easy way to think of it is, saturated fats stay solid at room temperature. The amount of saturated fat that an individual should consume is still a highly-debated topic and more research needs to be done. A meta-analysis of epidemiological studies (think observational) has shown that there is no evidence that dietary intake of saturated fats has any effect on risk for cardiovascular disease. Meanwhile, the American Heart Association released a review in which they recommend swapping out dietary sources of saturated fats for unsaturated fat foods. The AHA used randomized control trials (interventional) from the around 1960’s as the basis for their recommendation. This also led to the big debate about coconut oil, which I will be sharing my views on tomorrow. In the meantime, here is the article released by the AHA if you would like to give it a read.

Unsaturated Fat

Finally, there are the unsaturated fats. Examples of these foods are olive oil, vegetable oil, seeds, nuts, fish, and avocados. The meta-analysis released by the AHA that can be found here, showed that by replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats (think nuts and seeds) led to a 29% reduction in risk for cardiovascular disease. We’ve all also heard about the many benefits of omega 3 (a polyunsaturated fat) such as lowering plasma triglyceride levels, reducing inflammation, joint pain relief, and fetal brain development.


5 Takeaways About Fat

  1. You need fat so don’t be afraid to eat it! It keeps you full for longer periods of time and helps with satiety.
  2. Fat should compose 30-40% of your diet but make sure less than 10% is coming from saturated fats.
  3. Whenever possible substitute saturated fats for unsaturated fats, for example one night a week bake fish instead of beef.
  4. Avoid trans fat or “partially hydrogenated oils”.
  5. Be careful of foods that are “low fat” or “fat free” because they often replace fat with sugar. Make sure to read your food labels!

As you can see there is still so much research that needs to be done in the field of nutrition. I know many people complain that nutrition is so confusing because recommendations are always changing. The truth is nutrition science is still relatively new and recommendations change as more research is done. It’s not meant to confuse you personally, it’s just a part of the scientific process. If you have any questions or comments, as always, I would love to hear from you! Feel free to comment below.


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