Types of Fats: What You Need to Know

Dietary Guidelines have long recommended that we limit our intake of fat and monitor our intake of saturated fat. At the same time, many “trendy” diets support eating more fat. What types of fat should you consume?

Facts on Fat

Let’s start at the beginning. Fat is one of the three macro nutrients, the calorie nutrients, that we need for health. Yes, fat is important to our health, but the issue is how much and which type of fat. There are two categories of types of fat: saturated and unsaturated. Each of those categories has subgroups which are based on the chemical structure of fat. To avoid confusion, let’s just keep our focus on the two main categories.

Saturated Fats

Saturated fats refers to fats that have a chemical structure that is based on carbon molecules. Carbon molecules can connect to four other molecules. If each carbon connects to four other molecules, the fat is referred to as saturated.   Saturated fats are found predominately in animal foods, so meat, fish, poultry, and dairy foods. They are also found in coconut and palm kernel oil.  Saturated fats are solid at room temperature.

Unsaturated Fats

Unsaturated fats are fats that have carbon molecules that do not have four separate connecting molecules, so they double up or double-bond with some molecules. Unsaturated fats are plant based fats like oils, margarines made from oil, nuts and seeds. Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature – yes nuts and seeds are solid but the fat in them is liquid at room temperature.

Types of Fat in Food

While both types of fat tend to dominate in certain groups of foods it is important to remember that ALL foods are a mix of types of fats. When looking at groups of foods it is important to note that one fat is the dominant type but there are a mix of fats in all foods that contain fat.

Types of Fat and Health

Fat provides the body calories, but it also is a carrier for fat-soluble vitamins and essential fatty acids, components of fat. What has caused lots of confusion is what role fats play in heart disease. The body of evidence has long connected too much saturated fat with an increase in the bad or LDL cholesterol in the body. At the same time, research shows that unsaturated fats, especially omega-3’s, can help lower heart disease risk. The important fact here is all about BALANCE. Balancing your fat intake means to focus on more unsaturated fats in your diet while still choosing foods that are higher in saturated fat in smaller amounts or less often.

Tips for your Diet

A good example of balancing would be – adding meat to a pasta dish where you use half the normal amount of meat and use a variety of roasted vegetables for the other half portion. You might also find balance by shifting snack choices to nuts or seeds instead of cheese and crackers. Another option is enjoying a small scoop of ice cream, topped with fresh fruit and chopped walnuts – a shift in type of fat but total enjoyment. You can find more information, and tips for your diet, by visiting the American Heart Association website.

To Your Health!

The bottom-line when it comes to fats comes down to three points –

  1. Balance more healthful fats against those that are less healthful
  2. Monitor your portions of all fats due to the calories they contain
  3. Focus on nutrition – choose more nutrient rich, higher saturated fat foods, to maximize the value of your food choices!

If you need help developing a heart healthy plan, contact a Registered Dietitian.

About Connie Connie is a Registered Dietitian with extensive experience communicating in the food and nutrition space. Taking the science of food and nutrition and translating it to simple messages, new products, or exciting menus is her expertise. Making nutrition messages clearaccurate, and engaging aids all consumers.

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