Fats. No, they don’t make you fat!

Updated: Oct 25, 2020

Many people believe that eating fat makes them fat and honestly, even the nutritional world had the same opinion till the last decade. In recent years science has come through with compelling evidences that prove that not all fats are bad and most of them are actually quite important for our health. In this article I will provide you with the authentic information on fats and simplify them for you.


What?

Dietary fats are essential to give our body energy and to support cell growth. They help protect our organs and help keep our body warm. Fats also help our bodies absorb some nutrients and produce important hormones. Being one of the 3 macronutrients, fats are an excellent fuel providing 9 calories per grams. Fats can be classified as following:


1) Saturated Fats:

Meats and dairy products and some vegetarian sources like coconut, cocoa butter and palm oil are main sources of saturated fats. Up until recently saturated fats were demonized for elevating risks of CVD by increasing LDL (bad) cholesterol levels but recent studies show that these risks may have been overstated and replacing saturated fats in your diet with something like refined carbs may even be worse for your health.


2) Unsaturated fats:

These are the first choice for fat’s PR team and are considered beneficial as they help increase HDL (good) cholesterol levels and reduce inflammations. These are mostly found in plants and are usually liquid at room temperatures.

a) Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA): these help in lowering LDL cholesterol and improving cholesterol levels in body. Best sources are nuts (almonds, walnuts, cashews, peanuts etc), vegetable oils (olive oil, peanut oil etc), nut butters (peanut butter, almond butter etc) and avocadoes.

i) Omega 9 fatty acids: these are non essential fatty acids unlike their PUFA cousins but are equally healthy. They’ve been shown to reduce inflammation and improve insulin sensitivity.

b) Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA): these are essential fats (much like essential amino acids) because our bodies can’t make them. Like the MUFAs, they also help in improving cholesterol. Best sources are fatty fish (salmon etc), pastured eggs, nuts, seeds, tofu and vegetable oils.

i) Omega 3 fatty acids: these fatty acids are the star amongst all types of fats and I am sure you already know them by their reputation of numerous health benefits and thus their availability as supplements.

ii) Omega 6 fatty acids: these fatty acids are a good source of energy but having too much may be harmful.


3) Trans fats:

These are man-made fats which are not essential and have detrimental health implications. Trans fats are made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oils to solidify them thus they are also known as hydrogenated oils. Although they are a good choice for food processing industry as they are easy to use, cheap to produce and improve flavor and shelf life of food items; they are also a favorite for fast food chains as they can be reused in fryers many times over. But unsurprisingly, trans fats lower HDL cholesterol and increase LDL cholesterol thus increasing CVD risk. You know something is bad when WHO (yes, The World Health Organization) estimates trans fat to be the cause of 500,000 CVD related deaths each year!


Why?

Usually people paint some fats red for bad and some green but it may be more complex than that. For example, saturated fats usually face the most heat for being unhealthy and that may have some truth to it and the researcher in me does side with the fact that saturated fats raise the LDL cholesterol, but the nutritionist me believes that the source of fat plays the lead role. If you’re getting your saturated fats from junk and processed foods then just blaming fats to increase your CVD risk would be unfair as clearly the allover diet is unhealthy; but if you have grass fed meat, coconut oils and unprocessed dairy in your diet then the risks are negligible rather the wholesomeness of these healthier options may even help you protect you from heart diseases. If you’re not convinced, read this very informative article. Even the American Heart Association recommends having 5-6% of your daily calories from saturated fats. Unsaturated fatty acids, as you’ve read are mostly essential as well as beneficial and your diet should have enough of their sources such as fatty fish, nuts, and vegetable oils etc. One complicated factor is to balance the omega 3 and omega 6 ratios in your diet which should be 1:4 but western diets particularly have a ratio of 40:1 which is unhealthy as having too much omega 6 and too less of omega 3 may increase inflammation and inflammatory diseases. Omega 3 being the star of the show, I want to do justice to them by listing their health benefits:

  1. Help in brain development and reduce risk of mental issues.

  2. Improve heart health.

  3. Prevent inflammation.

  4. Reducing risk of fatty liver.

  5. Improving bone health.

  6. Prevent asthma.

  7. Help reduce weight (wow!)


How?

Having fats from healthy and wholesome sources helps in improving body functions, enhance brain development, strengthen immune system and reduce CVD risks. Follow these tips which will help you eat fats the right way:

  1. Avoid junk and deep fried foods especially at a fast food joint.

  2. Have diverse types of meat in your diet and prefer grass fed and pastured sources.

  3. Include fatty fish, nuts, nut butters, vegetable oils, avocados and tofu in your diet.

  4. Reduce processed foods from your diet.

  5. Grill, bake or steam foods rather than deep frying them.

  6. Be cautious of packed foods claiming to be ‘low fat’ or ‘fat free’ as they may have additives which may be unhealthier than the fat they replace.


The takeaway box:

Fats are an important macronutrient so drastically reducing them or eliminating them may not be a good idea. I hope this article has changed or enforced your perspective about fats particularly saturated fats. The thing to note is that many foods have a ‘lipid profile’ which means that they have a collection of fats present, so having a vivid and balanced diet of wholesome foods may help balance the fats you eat and automatically achieve the right ratios especially when you eliminate junk and fried foods which are rich in saturated and trans fats.



References and further reading:


Felman, A., 2020. Saturated Vs. Unsaturated Fats: Which Is More Healthful?. [online] Medicalnewstoday.com. Available at: <https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321655> [Accessed 2 July 2020].


Forouhi, Nita G., et al. "Dietary fat and cardiometabolic health: evidence, controversies, and consensus for guidance." Bmj 361 (2018).


Harvard Health. 2010. New Thinking On Saturated Fat - Harvard Health. [online] Available at: <https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/new-thinking-on-saturated-fat> [Accessed 2 July 2020].


Ludwig, David S., et al. "Dietary fat: From foe to friend?." Science 362.6416 (2018): 764-770.


Madell, R. and Nall, R., 2019. Good Fats, Bad Fats, And Heart Disease. [online] Healthline. Available at: <https://www.healthline.com/health/heart-disease/good-fats-vs-bad-fats> [Accessed 2 July 2020].


Newman, T., 2020. Types Of Fat: The Good And The Bad. [online] Medicalnewstoday.com. Available at: <https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/141442> [Accessed 2 July 2020].


Riccardi, G., R. Giacco, and A. A. Rivellese. "Dietary fat, insulin sensitivity and the metabolic syndrome." Clinical nutrition 23.4 (2004): 447-456.


Robertson, R., 2017. Omega-3-6-9 Fatty Acids: A Complete Overview. [online] Healthline. Available at: <https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/omega-3-6-9-overview> [Accessed 2 July 2020].


The Nutrition Source. 2017. Types Of Fat. [online] Available at: <https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/fats-and-cholesterol/types-of-fat/> [Accessed 2 July 2020].


Wang, Dong D., and Frank B. Hu. "Dietary fat and risk of cardiovascular disease: recent controversies and advances." Annual review of nutrition 37 (2017): 423-446.