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There have been many diet trends that have come and gone over the years. While most fad diets nowadays unfortunately shame carbs and grains, fat still has a lingering bad reputation from the low-fat diet craze years ago. Fats are essential and beneficial to our health for a multitude of reasons.
F ats are one of the main macronutrients. This means that they give our body energy (calories) and help to maintain our body systems. To meet our needs, it's recommended that fats make up about 20-35% of our daily calories. There are 3 main types of fats: saturated, unsaturated and trans fats. Let’s talk about the difference between them and how you can incorporate fats into your healthy eating routine.
What is fat and why do we need it?
Fats are essential for good health. They provide us with energy, protect our vital organs from damage, act as messengers in the body, and are necessary for brain development and controlling inflammation. Fats help with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins including vitamin A, D, E, K and minerals such as calcium, iron and magnesium. Fats are also essential for building cell membranes, blood clotting, and muscle movement. Not only do they provide nutritional benefits, but they also improve the taste, texture, mouthfeel, and satiation of meals, helping us feel full for longer. Unsaturated, saturated and trans fats all play different roles in our bodies.
- Unsaturated fats help to lower cholesterol levels, improve our overall cholesterol profile, ease inflammation in the body, and more.
- Unsaturated fats are found in vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fish. Unsaturated oils are typically liquid at room temperature, for example olive oil, avocado oil, and flaxseed oil.
- Unsaturated fats can be divided into two groups: Monounsaturated (MUFA) and Polyunsaturated (PUFA).
- PUFAs can be further broken down into omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which are essential in our diet since they cannot be made in the body.
- Omega-3 fatty acids can help to resolve inflammation in the body. They can be found in fatty fish (e.g. salmon, mackerel, sardines), ground flax, hemp hearts, flaxseed oil, walnut oil, hemp oil, wheat germ or fish oils. We can meet our needs for omega-3 fatty acids by eating fish 2-3 times per week, or including ground flax seeds, flax oil, hemp hearts, and walnuts regularly in our diets.
- Omega-6 fatty acids can be found in nuts, nut butters, eggs, soy, and vegetable oils, such as soybean oil, sunflower oil and safflower oil. Nowadays, it is common for people to get lots of omega-6s in their diet, but not enough omega-3s. Some studies suggest that having a lower omega-6:omega-3 ratio can be better for health, therefore try to ensure that you're having omega-3 rich foods daily.
- Saturated fats are typically be found in animal-based foods such as meat and dairy, and some plant-based oils, such as coconut oil and palm oil. Saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature, for example bacon fat or butter will harden when it cools.
- Saturated fats raise “good” levels of cholesterol called HDL, and also raise “bad” levels of cholesterol called LDL. So, while they do not need to be avoided altogether, consuming them in excess can result in increased cholesterol levels and may increase the risk of heart disease and inflammation.
- Replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats can help lower your LDL cholesterol and improve your HDL cholesterol, potentially lowering your risk of heart disease.
- Trans fatty acids are created through hydrogenation, where liquid vegetable oils are heated with hydrogen to make solid, to help ensure the fats do not go rancid in food manufacturing and improve the shelf life of packaged foods.
- Trans fats tend to raise our LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and lower our HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Having trans fats regularly may worsen inflammation and increase our risk of insulin resistance, heart disease, stroke and other chronic conditions.
- Trans fats are usually found in pre-packaged or pre-made meals, such as frozen pizzas, fried foods, and hydrogenated margarines.
- It is recommended to reduce or eliminate trans-fat from your diet, if possible. In 2018, Health Canada banned the use of partially hydrogenated oils in foods which is the main source of industrially produced trans fats, so we now see less and less trans fats on the market.
How to incorporate fat into your diet
Consider how fats are already incorporated into your balanced plate. To make your meals balanced, try to include a protein-rich food, starches, vegetables/fruit and some healthy fats. For example, they may be found in the protein-rich food you include, such salmon, eggs, meats, nuts, seeds, nut butters, or dairy products. To reduce your intake of saturated fats, try to choose leaner cuts of meat and/or incorporate more fish and plant-based sources of protein into your eating patterns, such as tofu, beans, chickpeas, and lentils. Pairing animal and plant-based proteins at meals is another great way to reduce your saturated fat intake, such as beef and black bean tacos or a chicken and chickpea curry. You may also want to incorporate fats into the vegetables/fruit part of your meal by adding avocado or using olive oil to cook or dress your vegetables. Fats may also be spread on your starches, such as butter on toast, avocado oil in a fried rice, or olive oil on roasted yams.
Take away points
- Incorporate healthy fats into your balanced meals.
- Choose leaner cuts of meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs, dairy, nuts, seeds, legumes, and tofu as your protein sources.
- Add fat sources to your snacks to improve the texture and mouthfeel, such as nuts, nut butters, seeds, cheese, hummus, guacamole, and yogurt.
- Try to incorporate more plant-based proteins into your routine to reduce your intake of saturated fat.
- Try to increase your consumption of omega-3 rich foods, such as fatty fish, ground flax seeds, hemp hearts and walnuts.
Written by Tamara Smallwood and Liz Powell, RD.
- Fats and Cholesterol. The Nutrition Source. (2021, March 8). https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/fats-and-cholesterol/types-of-fat/transfats/.
- Morenga, L. T., & Montez, J. M. (2020). Health effects of saturated and trans-fatty acid intake in children and adolescents: Systematic review and meta-analysis. PLOS ONE. https://doi.org/10.26686/wgtn.12830849
- The truth about fats: the good, the bad, and the in-between. Harvard Health. (2021, April 23). https://www.health.harvard.edu/index.php/staying-healthy/know-the-facts-about-fats.
- Hammond. (2020). Fats Lecture. University of British Columbia.