A Beginner’s Guide to Fat

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Are you (still) afraid of fat? Don’t be. For decades, we’ve been advised to steer clear from fat because it was thought to cause weight gain. Luckily, the nutrition world is waking up and realizing that fat plays an important role in every healthy, balanced diet. Learn about the basics of fat, and find out how fat affects your weight goals.

fat basics subhead

A gram-for-gram comparison of fat versus carbs and protein shows: At 9 calories per gram, fat is the most calorie-dense of all the macronutrients. It makes sense, since one of the biggest roles of fat is energy storage (just in case we need it). It’s hard for most of us to appreciate, but fat actually helps our bodies function correctly in several ways:

FAT MAINTAINS HEALTHY CELLS, ORGANS AND BRAINS

Fat plays a protective role for cells because it’s an important component of every cell’s membrane or “wall,” which protects against invaders. Fat protects your organs by cushioning them from the impact of everyday living. You also need certain fats to build and maintain a healthy brain, which is about 60% fat in composition!

FAT FUELS MOST OF YOUR ACTIVITIES

For day-to-day activities, fat is the main type of fuel our bodies burn for energy. Generally, during activity where your heart rate is less than 70% of its maximal rate, fat serves as your body’s primary source of fuel. Interested in learning more? Check out how to use heart rate training.

FAT HELPS YOU FEEL FULL, AND MAINTAIN A MORE STEADY BLOOD SUGAR LEVEL

Fat aids the release of CCK, a gut hormone that helps you feel more satiated after a meal. Pairing high-fat foods with high-carb foods helps prevent a rapid spike in blood sugar. How? Fat slows down digestion and the rate at which sugars from carbs enter the bloodstream.

For more basic facts on fat, check out Nutrition 101: Fats.

determine fat needs subhead

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) suggests that fat make up 20-35% of total calories in your diet, but you can certainly eat more or less depending on your goals. The MyFitnessPal app automatically allots 30% of calories to fat—of course, you can tailor this to meet your needs.

To determine your fat needs in grams:

  • Step 1: Decide what percentage of your calories you want to come from fat. Choose a 20%, 25%, 30% or 35% fat diet. Convert this number into a decimal (for example, 30% is 0.3).
  • Step 2: Multiply your “Total Calorie Goal” (your calorie goal given by the MyFitnessPal app) by the decimal value. This gives you the number of calories from fat.
  • Step 3: Divide the number of calories from fat by 9 to get the grams of fat.

Does this match your fat goal in the app?

tip 1 fat

understanding fat subhead

Fat is found in a wide variety of foods, either as naturally occurring or as added fat during processing and cooking. Naturally occurring fats tend to be found in dairy (think cheese, yogurt, milk), meat and fish, nuts and seeds, oil and fatty fruits (think avocado, olive). Added fats tend to be found in processed and packaged goods. Of course, not all fats are created equal when it comes to health, so here’s a brief run-down of the common fats found in food:

SATURATED FAT

It’s solid at room temperature and mostly comes from animal sources like meat, particularly red meat, and dairy. Certain plants and their oil are high in saturated fat, such as coconut and palm. Virtually all major health organizations advise us to eat less saturated fat since it raises LDL cholesterol, a risk factor for heart disease. This is why the MyFitnessPal app sets your saturated fat limit at less than 10% of total calories.

TRANS FAT

Most trans fat found in food are synthetically made by taking liquid unsaturated fat and blasting it with hydrogen so that it resembles solid saturated fat. Why? Because this makes it more shelf stable, easier to cook with, and allows manufacturers to replace saturated fat in their products. Sadly, this backfired, as evidence revealed that trans fat are one of the worst things for your ticker. Not only did trans fat increase LDL (bad) cholesterol, but it also decreased HDL (good) cholesterol. For this transgression, the MyFitnessPal app sets your trans fat goal at 0 grams per day.

tip 2 fat

MONOUNSATURATED (MUFA) AND POLYUNSATURATE FAT (PUFA)

They’re what we think of when we say “healthy” fats because they don’t carry the same risk for heart disease as saturated and trans fat. Generally, MUFA and PUFA are found in high-fat, plant-based foods (avocado, nuts, seeds, olives) and fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel). The fat in these foods are liquid at room temperature, and we’re advised to eat them in place of saturated fat.

OMEGA-3 AND OMEGA-6

While they’re technically polyunsaturated fats, the omegas deserve a separate call-out since our bodies cannot produce them. Both omega-6 and omega-3 fats play important roles in regulating our immune systems. Omega-3 fat plays an essential role in developing our vision and nervous systems. Adequate intake for adults range from 12-17 grams per day for omega-6 fats and 1.1-1.6 grams per day for omega-3 fats. We easily get enough omega-6 fats from the foods we eat because soybean, safflower and corn oil are abundant in our food supply. Omega-3 fats are harder to come by since they’re mostly found in fatty fish; this is partly why we’re advised to eat more seafood by the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

enjoy fats subhead

1. EAT A MODERATE AMOUNT OF FAT FROM MEAT AND DAIRY

Meat and dairy can certainly have a role in any balanced diet, but they shouldn’t make up the majority of your intake. Enjoy them in moderation along with plenty of whole grains, veggies and fruits.

2PAIR FAT-RICH FOODS WITH NUTRIENT DENSE FOODS

Eating fats along with foods that are rich in fat-soluble vitamins and minerals allows your body to better absorb them. A good example: Use high-fat salad dressing to maximize your absorption of the vitamins and minerals from the veggies in your salad.

3. CHOOSE FOODS HIGH IN OMEGA-3 FATS WHEN POSSIBLE

Most of the fat in our diets supply us with plenty of omega-6 fats, but we should be getting a better balance between omega-6 and omega-3. Both fats play a role in keeping inflammation in check, so it’s important that we get a good ratio of the two.

4. VARY YOUR COOKING OIL

Different cooking oils provide varying amounts of saturated fat, MUFA and PUFA, plus they impart different flavors and aroma to your food. To get the maximum benefit in a budget-savvy way, purchase olive oil (for low-heat cooking) and canola oil (for high-heat cooking. Olive oil provides valuable MUFA and omega-6 fats, but canola also has a decent amount of omega-3 fats. Learn more by reading cooking oils decoded.

5. EAT FOODS RICH IN HEALTHY FATS, SUCH AS THOSE LISTED BELOW

MONOUNSATURATED & POLYUNSATURATED FATS

List of healthy fats you can grab quickly at the grocery store.

Food (per serving) Calories Total Fat (g) MUFA (g) PUFA (g)
Almond (1oz) 164 14 9 4
Cashew (1oz) 157 12 7 2
Walnut (1oz) 185 18 3 13
Peanut Butter (2tbsp) 188 16 7 4
Cheese (1oz) 115 10 2 0
Yogurt (170g) 104 3 1 0
Dark Chocolate (1oz) 164 11 3 0
Avocado (1/2 fruit) 160 14 10 2

OMEGA-3 FATS

Quick list of foods naturally high in omega-3 fatty acids.

Food (per serving) Calories Total Fat (g) Omega-3 Fats (g)
Flaxseed oil (1tbsp) 120 14 7.3
Chia seeds (1oz) 138 9 5.1
Walnuts (1oz) 185 18 2.6
Salmon (4oz) 203 12 2
Ground flaxseed (2 tbsp) 60 9 3.2
Sardines (4oz) 236 13 1.6
Tofu (1/2 cup) 78 3 0.6

how body uses fat subhead

Having a certain amount of fat on board is crucial for life—so much so that our bodies have figured out a way to make fat even if we eat almost no fat at all! Excess carbs and protein can both be converted into fat and stored as energy, or used in some of the important functions we mentioned above in Fat Basics.

Not surprisingly, significant fat breakdown occurs when your body runs on a calorie deficit. In a healthy adult, calorie deficits occur mainly by restricting calories consumed or by undergoing a tough workout. When this happens, your body taps into its own fat stores, breaking them down for energy through a process called “beta oxidation.” This process requires glucose, which can come from carbohydrates or protein, and is most efficient when you’re mildly restricting calories. Not only does the body burn fat during calorie deficits, but it also burns fat during normal day-to-day activities. Fat is the primary source of fuel when you engage in low-intensity movements, from sitting in front of the computer to walking the dog. The body does this so it can spare glucose (the good stuff!) for your brain and red blood cells.

fat tip 3

fat myths subhead

1. EATING FAT WILL MAKE YOU FAT

Your body stores fat mainly from excess calories. If a calorie excess is available, even if those calories are from carbs or protein, your body is fully capable of turning them into fat for storage.

2. YOUR BODY CAN ONLY USE CARBOHYDRATES TO FUEL DURING EXERCISE

Your body burns a combination of carbs, fat and protein. At rest and during low-intensity exercise (e.g. exercising at less than 70% maximal heart rate), fat is the fuel of choice. Your body’s fuel of choice shifts to carbs when you exercise harder—at a moderately intense pace and beyond.

3. EATING LOW-FAT AND NONFAT FOODS WILL SAVE YOU CALORIES

Contrary to what the label might tell you, low-fat and nonfat versions of foods tend to contain more fillers and additives to make up for missing flavor. A common additive is, unsurprisingly, sugar (or any one of its 44 cousins).

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