When it comes to nutrition, ‘fat’ is a loaded word. There’s a common misconception that fat makes you fat, so it’s the first thing people try to cut from their diet when they want to lose weight. And food companies have done their best to run with this ideology — marketing products as ‘low-fat’, ‘diet’, and ‘healthy’. But does fat really deserve the bad rap it’s had for the last couple of decades? To understand that, we first need to understand what fat really is.
What is fat?
At a chemical level, fats are carbon atoms bonded with hydrogen atoms. But the structure of these atoms varies depending on the type of fat.
You may have heard the terms ‘saturated fat’ and ‘unsaturated fat’ being used often in nutrition discourse. These are the two broad categories of fats found in your food. You may also have heard the term trans fats, which is found in processed foods.
But, what’s the difference?
- Saturated fats: Saturated fats remain solid or thick at room temperature — think ghee or coconut oil. It is denser than unsaturated fats and should be consumed in smaller amounts. Other examples include some meats, dairy products, baked goods, chocolates, deep-fried and processed food
- Unsaturated fats: Known as good fats, these are liquid at room temperature and are often found in plants and plant byproducts. Most essential fatty acids, like Omega 3 and Omega 6, which help regulate a myriad of functions from blood pressure to inflammatory responses, are also unsaturated fats. Avocado, nuts, seeds, nut butters, vegetable oils such as olive oil, sunflower oil, canola oil etc are all sources of good fats
- Trans fat: It is a man-made product that mimics the properties of saturated fat through a process called hydrogenation. A well-known hydrogenated vegetable oil is vanaspati, margarine, or dalda. This is what nutritionists consider ‘bad fat’. Because it’s processed, it’s nutritional value is significantly lower than the fats found in natural foods. This makes it a high-risk factor for cardiovascular issues and a build-up in cholesterol.
In a nutshell, not all fats are bad. However, as you can see, not all fats are created equal. While we can enjoy many natural fats in moderation, we need to avoid trans fats as much as possible or run the risk of developing serious health issues.
What is cholesterol then? And what does it have to do with fat?
We often hear the words cholesterol and fats go hand in hand – to the extent that many use the words interchangeably. While cholesterol and fats are not the same, the fats you consume can affect your cholesterol. To understand the link between the two, let’s first understand what cholesterol is and how it can affect us.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance produced by the body (liver) also available to our body through the foods we eat.
There are 2 kinds of cholesterol:
- High-Density Lipoproteins (HDL) also known as good cholesterol works as a cleansing agent in the bloodstream – it can clear plaque build-up and even work as a protection against heart disease and stroke. Natural sources of good fats or unsaturated fats such as seeds and nuts can help increase the HDL count
- Low-Density Lipoproteins (LDL), commonly known as bad cholesterol, is more dangerous and can clog your arteries if it builds up in your body. Processed foods that are high in trans fats and refined ingredients can increase the amount of LDL and triglycerides (lipid markers that also indicate excess calories) in your system, leading to health complications and inflammation. Further, unsaturated fats can help lower LDL values.
The ratio between your total cholesterol and HDL or good cholesterol levels should be less than 3.5. Maintaining this balance is especially important because it can mitigate health risks like cardiovascular diseases. The best way to do this is by monitoring your diet since the kinds of fats you consume affect the HDL and LDL values. By avoiding processed trans fats and incorporating more natural, unsaturated, fats from nuts, seeds, and pulses, you can ensure that the ratio remains balanced.
What role do fats play in our lives?
Fats are needed to perform several vital bodily functions.
- Source of energy: Fats have a higher caloric content than any other macronutrient, almost 9 calories per gram( as opposed to 4 cal per gram of carbohydrates & proteins), and are a dense source of energy
- Absorb vitamins : Fats help your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E and K
- Regulate body temperature : Fats help regulate body temperature and maintain metabolism
- Increase satiety : Fats help you feel full after every meal so you don’t over eat
- Protect internal organs : Essential fats act as a cushion and protect internal organs from impact during injury
- Improves brain function : We need to get enough omega 3-fatty acids because these are the essential building blocks of our brain and they’re important for learning and memory
- Completely eliminating fats (good fats) from your diet means you’re actually putting your health at risk.
So how much fat should you consume?
Ideally, about 20-25% of your total calorie intake should come from fats – nuts, oilseeds, cold pressed cooking oil etc. Of this less than 10% should come from saturated fats like ghee, butter etc
Say you have a 2000 calorie diet, about 400-500 calories should come from fats. If you’re looking at the gram value, you should get 45-55gm (1 gm of fat = 9 cal) of fat from your diet.
As a rule of thumb – consume more unsaturated fats, replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats and avoid trans fats.
What’s the best way to incorporate good fats in your diet?
Here are some things to keep in mind to ensure you’re doing the best for your body:
Meat, fish, poultry, and dairy have a higher saturated fat content than plant products, so try and get most of your fat from plant sources — nuts, seeds, pulses, and avocados for example. A very simple way to incorporate these in your diet would be to replace a snack with a handful of nuts- a handful of almonds and walnuts / sesame and chia toasted on a bowl of fruits , replace your mayo or butter with avocado spread etc.
Get your fat content from the source, rather than processed products as much as possible — use grated coconut instead of coconut oil, nuts instead of nut butters with added sugars, etc. The less processed the food is, the better it is for your cholesterol levels
What about supplements? Do we need them?
The average person doesn’t need to consume supplements like fish oil tablets unless there’s a severe deficiency in a particular nutrient — check with a doctor or nutritionist before incorporating supplements into your diet. Get your required essential fatty acids from natural sources such as fish, nuts, and seeds, avocados, and more.
If you continue to eat fats, how can you lose weight?
Like we have discussed so far, fats (good fats) are essential for survival. So you need a balanced diet that includes all nutrients through varied food groups which nourish your body well – yes fats and carbs included. It’s important to note that when you say you want to lose weight – you actually want to lose the fat and not the muscle or tone. So your diet also needs to be supplemented by a regular workout — both cardio and muscle training. While cutting fats out is not an option, you can pay attention to your calorie intake and focus on creating a calorie deficit – consume fewer calories than you burn.
When we talk about fats, the conversation is usually clouded by assumptions. But completely removing fat from our diets is not the way to a healthier life. Instead choose to eat good or unsaturated fats, avoid eating bad or trans fats and eat saturated fats in moderation. So let’s show a little more love to this controversial macronutrient, and learn how to better incorporate it into our lives!