Weighing the Fat

Dietary fat explained

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

The information we get about dietary nutrition in general and fats especially can often feel overwhelming. With so many details to wade through, it can be hard to understand the components that make up a healthy diet.

When it comes to fat, there are several different kinds and sometimes there are multiple different types of fat in one food item. It isn’t necessary (or necessarily healthy) to avoid fat completely, but by learning the the facts we can regulate the fats in our diet in a balanced way.

Fact Basics

According to the Mayo Clinic, fat is a vital macronutrient sustaining various body functions, including the absorption of some vitamins.

Some fat is created by our bodies from excess calories and some (dietary fat) is taken in from plants and animals in the form of food.

Though necessary to our body in certain amounts, excess types of some dietary fat could potentially raise the risks for conditions like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

Saturated Versus Unsaturated

We get most of the saturated fat in our diet from animal food sources. This is generally considered an unhealthier fat and according to the Mayo Clinic, it “raises total blood cholesterol levels and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels, which can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.”

Some evidence shows that saturated fat might also contribute to type 2 diabetes.

Examples of saturated fat are butter, stick margarine and shortening, along with beef and pork fat. They tend to stay solid at room temperature and because of this are sometimes called “solid fats.”

In comparison, there are two types of unsaturated fats - monounsaturated and polyunsaturated that are generally considered a healthier option. Unlike saturated fats, they are usually liquid at room temperature. Examples are safflower oil, peanut oil, olive oil and corn oil.

Monounsaturated fat is found in various types of food and according to the Mayo Clinic, eating such foods could improve blood cholesterol levels (thus decreasing risk of heart disease) and may help control insulin levels and blood sugar.

Our intake of polyunsaturated fat comes mostly from plant-based foods and could also help with blood cholesterol levels and heart disease, as well as potentially lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes.

Omega-3 fatty acids are one type of polyunsaturated fat that have gotten a lot of attention lately for their heart-healthy benefits. These commonly occur in fatty fish and the Mayo Clinic reports that they “appear to decrease the risk of coronary artery disease and may also protect against irregular heartbeats and help lower blood pressure levels.”

Trans Fat Two-Step

Trans fat is a type that has traditionally been considered unhealthy. This is largely due to the fact that many of these trans fats are synthetic products created in processed foods by partially hydrogenating unsaturated fats. This creates fats that have a longer shelf-life, but may be worse for your body.

The Mayo Clinic reports that these synthetic trans fats can increase the likelihood of heart disease and lower healthy high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol while raising unhealthy LDL cholesterol levels.

However, there has been a recent push for educating the public on the potential benefits of natural trans fats.

A new website out of the University of Alberta in Canada, “Natural Trans Fats - The Natural Choice,” is aiming to make the distinction between the two types clear.

According to Spencer Proctor, MD, Director of the Metabolic and Cardiovascular Diseases Laboratory at the university, “Natural trans fats are a natural part of milk and meat from ruminant animals, such as dairy and beef cattle, bison, goats and sheep. These fats are not a health concern as part of a healthy, balanced diet."

The Natural Trans Fats website reports that “in fact, in pre-clinical research, these unique trans fats show health enhancing potential.” But before conclusions like this can be made, much more research needs to be completed and analyzed.

As it stands now, the American Heart Association recommends limiting trans fat to no more than 1 percent of your total daily calories. For most people, this is less than 2 grams a day.

It is also important to note that the Natural Trans Fat website is cosponsored by several industry players, including the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency and the Dairy Farmers of Canada.

As attention on this subject grows, it is likely that the way products with trans fats are labeled will change.

It is currently not required or commonplace for food labels to distinguish between natural and synthetic trans fats. If natural trans fats are indeed found to be beneficial to health, it is especially likely that this practice will change dramatically.

Weighing the Fat

So how does this all come into play in your everyday diet?

Jim Crowell, fitness expert and athletic trainer, tells his clients that it is vital to have high quality fats in your diet as a way to manage sugar levels, among other health benefits.

“A great example is that omega 3 fatty acids help your immune system, your skin, and there is even evidence showing that it lessens the potential of debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer's,” Crowell told dailyRx in an interview. “I believe that every time that you eat you should include small amounts of quality fat in your diet to maintain a high quality of health.”

The Mayo Clinic recommends choosing the healthier kinds of fats (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated) and enjoying them in moderation. This could mean choosing olive oil over butter and salmon over steak.

Whatever your choice for fat intake, it is wise to take The Mayo Clinic’s advice and eat everything in moderation.  

Review Date: 
June 22, 2012