Why Fat is Crucial to a Healthy Diet

Fat used to be viewed as the evil nutrient. But now we know not eating enough fat is as bad for your health as eating too much

Credit: tellumo

There are three main types of fats and each is important in your diet

The low-fat diets of the ’80s and ’90s were supposed to improve our collective health.

But since then, our cholesterol levels and rates of heart disease have increased dramatically. So what happened?

Flawed Science of Nutrition

Two forces drove the low-fat mantra. One is the fact that fat is the most energy dense macronutrient, with nine calories of energy in each gram. Proteins and carbohydrates have roughly four calories per gram.   

It would seem logical if you want to cut back on calories that cutting back on fat intake is the easiest way to do so. But total calories are only one factor in good nutrition. What those calories are made up of is just as important.

The second driving force for limiting dietary fat was research linking increased fat intake with cardiovascular disease. I won’t go into all the details but many of the studies were seriously flawed in their methodology. In one of the pivotal studies, the lead researcher cherry-picked the data he used to prove his conclusions. If you actually look at all the data there was no link between fat intake and rate of cardiovascular disease.    

Types of Fats

There are three primary types of fat:

  • saturated
  • monounsaturated
  • polyunsaturated 

Different molecular structures is what makes saturated fats solid at room temperature while unsaturated fats are in liquid form.  

The main examples of saturated fats are animal fats and tropical oils (coconut and palm oil).  

Monounsaturated fats are found in foods like olive oil, avocados and many types of nuts.  

Polyunsaturated fat foods are fish, flax, hemp, canola oil and safflower oil. Omega 3, 6 and 9 are types of polyunsaturated fats that have been extensively researched recently. The omega 3 fatty acids, in particular, have been shown to have many health benefits.  

Keep in mind that many types of food contain a ratio of the different types of fats. For example, beef fat is 55% saturated, 40% monounsaturated and 5% polyunsaturated.  

Benefits of Fat

Fats can help protect your cardiovascular system, help you lose body fat and help alleviate depression.  

Too little fat can cause as many problems as too much fat. Fats are vital to your immune system, hormone production, metabolism, cell structure and the absorption of many nutrients.  

Holistic Point of View

Making any one macronutrient – whether it is fats, proteins or carbohydrates – the sole enemy of good health is a mistake. Humans evolved eating all these nutrients and each one plays a crucial role in keeping us fit and healthy.  

You need to keep a holistic point of view when looking at the three macronutrients. More important than the total amount of fat you consume is the fatty acid profile of those fats. Our modern diet has too much fat coming from refined vegetable oils like soybean oil, corn oil and safflower oil. And our saturated fats are also coming from too many highly processed sources.  

Which Fats to Eat and Which to Avoid

For good health you want to consume a healthy balance of each type of fat. Aim for about 30% of your daily calories coming from fat, divided evenly between saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (10% each).

Choose whole food sources to get your fats. Nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil, butter, grass-fed meats, free-range poultry, wild fish – all are great sources of healthy fats.  

Minimize processed foods and avoid any food that lists the terms “hydrogenated” or “partially-hydrogenated.” These indicate man-made trans fats, the only type of fat that truly is bad for your health in any amount.

My Big Fat Salad

Here’s a favourite salad I like to make that includes the different fats (highlighted):

  • 1 – 2 cups green salad mix (various lettuces and herbs)
  • 1 medium tomato
  • 1/2 cup cucumber
  • 1/2 cup carrots
  • 1/2 cup cauliflower and/or 1/2 cup broccoli
  • 1/2 cup avocado (primarily monounsaturated fat)
  • 2 tbsp raw pumpkin seeds (mostly polyunsaturated fat)
  • 2 tbsp feta cheese (saturated fat)
  • 2 tsp ground flax seeds (polyunsaturated fat – Omega 3)
  • 3 tsp olive oil (monounsaturated fat)

Eat this with a side of lean protein and you’ve got a tasty, healthy meal.