Though many dieters have become gun-shy when it comes to fat, it is truly an essential part of a healthy, balanced diet. Fats and oils provide essential fatty acids that can reduce risk for chronic diseases, such as cancer and heart disease. They both supply and enhance the absorption of vitamins, improving your health from the inside-out. Plus, fats and oils add flavor and increase feelings of satiety, crucial when you are trying to lose weight and keep hunger at bay.
So how much fat should you be eating? As with the other nutrients, this amount can vary based on your goals and health needs. For most individuals, a range of 20-30% of calories is appropriate. Keep in mind that fats provide 9 calories per gram, over twice as many calories per gram as carbs or protein, which both contain 4 calories per gram. This also explains why a tablespoon of fat has over twice as many calories as a tablespoon of sugar.
Though all fats contain the same number of calories per gram, their health benefits are not equal. Fats are often described by their relative hydrogen saturation—saturated, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated—which determines both the physical characteristics as well as the impact on our health. In addition to these, there are also trans fats; these are plant-based oils that have been chemically altered through partial hydrogenation to have characteristics similar to saturated fats.
Quite often, you’ll hear fats described as being ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ While some fats can enhance our health, others can increase risk for chronic disease. So what kinds of fats should you be eating and how much?
Both mono- and polyunsaturated fats are considered ‘good’ fats. Found in fish, some vegetables, plant-based oils, nuts, and seeds, these fats (and oils) can reduce risk for certain chronic diseases, particularly heart disease. Almost every American is aware that olive oil is a healthy choice and just as many know that omega-3 fatty acids are a wellness gold mine. These benefits are derived from the very chemical structure of these mono- and polyunsaturated fats and by eating more plant-based fats and fish, you too can start to reap the benefits they offer. Strive for about 20% of calories from mono- and polyunsaturated fats.
Where mono- and polyunsaturated fats typically come from plant-based foods and fish, saturated fats are most often found in animal-based foods—think of that marbling on your steak or a stick of butter. Because these fats have a tendency to increase both our total cholesterol as well as artery-clogging LDL (or bad) cholesterol, saturated fats are often considered ‘bad’ fats. In addition to heart disease risk, saturated fat intake has also been associated with certain cancers, such as breast cancer. In order to reduce your risk for these chronic diseases, the American Heart Association recommends you consume no more than 10% of your calories from saturated fats. To cut back on your intake of these fats, choose lean cuts of meat and trim away all visible fat, remove the skin from all poultry, choose low fat or nonfat dairy products, and use less butter, mayonnaise, and creamy salad dressings.
If mono- and polyunsaturated fats are ‘the good’ and saturated fats are ‘the bad,’ then trans fats are definitely ‘the UGLY.’ These fats are nothing but bad news for our bodies. Not only do they increase total cholesterol and our LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol, but they also decrease our HDL (‘good’) cholesterol! For this reason, no safe amount can be recommended and the American Heart Association suggests consuming less than 1% of your calories from trans fats per day. When reading Nutrition Facts labels, look for foods that contain 0 grams trans fats and watch out for foods that list ‘partially hydrogenated’ oils amongst the ingredients; though these foods might claim to have 0 grams trans fats, food manufacturers may label a food as having 0 grams if it contains less than 0.5 grams. This means a food might contain 0.44 grams of trans fats and yet be labeled as having 0 grams!
Though all of these numbers and percentages might seem a little overwhelming, don’t miss the forest for the trees! To keep your life simple, begin by choosing plant-based fats, oils and fish most of the time. By doing this one simple thing, you can easily boost your intake of ‘good’ fats while decreasing your intake of ‘bad’ fats. Just remember, though, that fat is fat when it comes to calories. Though olive oil might be a healthier choice than butter, it is still sky-high in calories. No matter what kind of fat or oil you’re using just be sure to measure that portion!