- Fats play a pivotal role in brain development, vitamin absorption, energy provision, and organ insulation.
- Instead of avoiding fats altogether, it's crucial to differentiate between fat types and regulate their intake for a balanced diet.
- "Healthy fats" primarily refer to beneficial unsaturated fats, which promote cardiovascular health, reduce inflammation, and contribute to overall wellness.
In the world of nutrition and wellness, the term “healthy fats” is frequently used. This may leave you wondering what exactly constitutes these beneficial fats, and what transpired with the once-ubiquitous low-fat diet trend of the 80s and 90s? With the added twist that not all fats are created equal, it's no wonder this macronutrient lacks clarity, leading some to believe that avoiding fats altogether is best!
Get ready to shatter the misconceptions surrounding low-fat diets as we explore the science behind the vital role that fats play in a balanced diet. In this guide, we will examine the benefits of dietary fats, the different types of fats, and daily fat intake recommendations. Finally, we’re serving up a platter of vegan and paleo food sources packed with the goodness of healthy fats to elevate your everyday wellness!
Health Benefits of Dietary Fats
- Fats give structure to cellular membranes, and are therefore essential for protecting against pathogens and
- Essential for brain development during pregnancy and early childhood, and for promoting brain health throughout adolescence and adulthood
- Key component to allow the absorption of fat soluble vitamins including vitamin A, D, E, K (1)
- Necessary for the production of hormones
- Provide energy, and promote blood sugar balance
- Promote healthy skin
- Provide our body with a layer of protection, insulating vital organs and supporting body temperature regulation
Fats can be distinguished from one another based on their molecular structure. Saturated fats are fatty acid molecules consisting of a carbon chain, with hydrogen atoms attached. They are fully “saturated” with the maximum amount of hydrogen molecules possible. Saturated fat can be easily distinguished as they are typically solid at room temperature. Some examples of saturated fats include coconut oil, palm oil, and fats found in animal products such as meat, poultry, and dairy.
Within the category of saturated fats, there are over 30 types of saturated fats. Not all of them are “bad”, and more recent research has shown that some can be anti-inflammatory, and have other health benefits. For example, saturated fats found in coconut oil are primarily made up of medium-chain triglycerides (MCT). MCTs can be passively diffused in our digestive system, in opposition to long-chain triglycerides which require further processing to be digested and absorbed. MCT oil is a great source of energy, can help boost brain health, and may reduce risk for heart disease by lowering LDL cholesterol and increasing production of HDL (good) cholesterol (2)
Overall - reducing highly processed fats and refined oils is a good idea - as higher intakes of saturated fats and trans fats have been linked to higher levels of LDL cholesterol in the body. Current recommendations state that saturated fat should make up no more than 10% of daily calorie intake (source).
As per the Canada Food Guide; "The intention is not to reduce total fat in the diet. Rather, it is to help reduce intakes of saturated fat, while encouraging foods that contain mostly unsaturated fat"
Trans fats are a result of processing unsaturated oils, through a process called hydrogenation. The resulting fat is solid at room temperature (for example margarine) and was initially thought to be a healthier alternative to consuming saturated fats. However, in recent years research has shown that trans fats are have the potential to increase LDL (bad) cholesterol and decrease HDL (good) cholesterol - leading to increased risk of heart disease. Trans fats are naturally found in some foods such as dairy, meat products, and some oils. If following dietary approaches to stop hypertension (DASH diet), limiting trans fats as much as possible is advised. As of September 2018, all artificially processed trans fats have been banned in Canada (3).
Unsaturated Fats ("Healthy Fats")
Unsaturated fats consist of a fatty acid chain that has one or more carbon to carbon double bonds, meaning that they are not fully saturated with hydrogen atoms. Unsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature.
There are different types of unsaturated fats as well, including monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids:
Polyunsaturated fatty acids - include omega-3 and omega-6 fats, which are well known for their health benefits! Omega-3s are beneficial for brain health, reducing inflammation, immunity, supporting healthy hormones, and may protect agains heart disease (4,5). Sources include walnuts, hazelnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, and avocados. The optimal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids is between 1:2 - 1:4 (omega-3: omega-6), however many processed oils contain high amounts of omega-6. When consumed in excess, omega-6 can be inflammatory, so it’s important to include good sources of omega-3s to balance out consumption of omega-6.
Monounsaturated fatty acids - another healthy unsaturated fat, monounsaturated fatty acids can be found in almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios, cashews, olive oil, avocados, sesame oil, and more. Monounsaturated fats can potentially help to: protect against heart disease by lowering LDL cholesterol and blood pressure.
Healthy unsaturated fats that are key for promoting cardiovascular health, brain health, reducing inflammation, and providing energy! With all unsaturated fats, it’s important to choose high quality unrefined sources, as they are unstable and can be damaged by high temperatures and cooking.
How Much Fat Should I Be Consuming?
This can vary based on many factors including age, weight, activity level, disease and other risk factors. However, the current recommendation is that dietary fats (including all types) should make up 25% - 30% of your daily calories. Within this allotted amount, saturated fats are to make up no more than 10% of your daily calories, leaving 15% - 20% to be consumed as unsaturated healthy fats.
We’ve covered a lot of information on healthy fats in this post! These are the key points we’d like you to takeaway:
- Replacing processed oils and fats with sources of unsaturated fats and minimal amounts of high quality saturated fats in your diet is ideal
- Reducing total fat is not necessary (contrary to outdated low-fat diet trends). Healthy fats are an essential part of our diet, and are necessary for promoting cardiovascular health, brain health, reducing inflammation, and providing energy!
- Trans fats that are produced through hydrogenation should be limited as much as possible, as they pose an increased risk of heart disease
- Whole foods such as almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, macadamia nuts, cashews, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, flax seeds, olive oil, avocados (among others) are great sources of healthy unsaturated fats
- Aiming for 25% - 30% daily calories from fats, with no more than 10% from saturated fats is optimal.
We hope this helps to clear up your questions - any please feel free to leave a comment on this post, so that we can help answer your FAQs about healthy fats!
- Written by Jasmine Ouellette, Certified Holistic Nutritionist