Article by Megan Meyer as appeared on Health US News
While checking out at the grocery store last week, I took the 5 minutes or so that I had to glance at a few of the magazines that were lining the checkout aisles. In that small amount of time, I found that massive amounts of nutrition information centered on fat and which diets were the best – but what also caught my eye was the enormous amount of focus on “banishing belly fat” or “X ways to stop feeling fat.” Like the other two macronutrients, protein and carbohydrates, fat is a macronutrient we all need – yet it’s the only macronutrient that becomes a target for us to “trim from our bodies” and is used as an adjective to describe appearances and/or feelings. Because of this, the information and conversations about fat can become muddled and confusing, indicating a real need to clear up the confusion and give sound, science-based information about dietary fats.
First Things First, What Is Fat?
Fat, comprised of fatty acids, is one of three essential macronutrients, and it’s important for the formation of your cells and brain and nervous tissue. There are two kinds of dietary fats: saturated and unsaturated. The term “saturation” depends on the amount of hydrogen atoms that surround the fatty acid structure.
Saturated fats are “saturated” or completely full of hydrogen, contain no double bonds and are usually solid at room temperature. Saturated fat is typically found in animal products, fully hydrogenated oils and tropical oils, such as palm and coconut oil. Unsaturated fats are not “saturated” or filled with hydrogen, contain double bonds and are usually liquid at room temperature. The double bonds in unsaturated fat are what distinguish between monounsaturated fats, aka omega-9 fatty acids, and polyunsaturated fats, aka omega-3 and -6 fatty acids. Not surprising (based off their name), monos (omega-9 fatty acids) have one double bond, and polys (omega-3 and -6 fatty acids) have two double bonds.
What Kinds of Fat Should I Try to Consume?
You may have been tuned in to the saturated fat craze that has become popular in recent years, stemming from research that concluded that “current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats.” However, these findings differ drastically from the large body of evidence linking saturated fats and heart health, which was not adequately acknowledged by the researchers.
Instead, recommendations from leading health organization like the American Heart Association, plus the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines, emphasize the importance of fat in our diet, but want us to be more aware of the types of fat we eat. Instead of focusing on total amounts, the focus should shift toward replacing less healthy fats with more healthy fat options. The recommendation from these organization is to swap saturated fats with mono-and polyunsaturated fats, since the Dietary Guidelines states that there is “strong and consistent evidence” for reducing blood levels of both total and LDL cholesterol, while also reducing the risk for cardiovascular disease events and CVD-related deaths.
What Foods Are Rich in Unsaturated Fat?
There is a wide variety of foods from plants and animals alike that you can turn to as rich sources of unsaturated fat. Plant oils such as soybean and canola are good sources of both mono- and polyunsaturated fat. Olive oil has more monounsaturated fat, but does contain some polyunsaturated fat, in the form of omega-6. Nuts and seeds such as walnuts and flaxseed are great sources of unsaturated fat, and some common nuts like almonds and peanuts provide monounsaturated fats and omega-6s. Dairy products such as yogurt and low-fat milk also contain some monounsaturated fat, while non-dairy products like soy contain both mono- and poly-unsaturated fat.
Lean meat such as chicken, pork and meat contain both mono- and polyunsaturated fat, though only as omega-6 fatty acids. In case you were wondering, the term lean meat refers to the amount of saturated and total fat. Specifically, the “lean” label indicates that the meat does not have more than 4.5 grams of saturated fat, and no more than 10 grams of total fat. In addition to meat found on dry land, seafood is another great source of healthy fat: tilapia, catfish and salmon are great sources of omega-3s and -6s and monounsaturated fat; tuna provides both monounsaturated fat and omega-3s; and shrimp provide monounsaturated fat.
Instead of focusing on numbers and amounts, try to focus on type. Using this approach to fat will allow you to reap the health benefits of fat, while still enjoying different foods and flavors.
Megan Meyer, PhD is the Manager of Nutrition Communications at the International Food Information Council. At IFIC, she develops educational materials and stimulates conversations surrounding nutrition related issues. Coupling her training in basic scientific research with her passion for communication, Megan strives to serve as science liaison to promote and discuss public health related topics and materials to various audiences.