Health Habits: Fat: An Essential Part of our Diet

Think about a nice, juicy steak with a loaded baked potato and a side of green beans and bacon. What nutrient do you think is found in all components of that plate?  If you thought of fat, you are correct!  Fat gives food extra-rich flavor and buttery mouthfeel.  Most foods we eat has at least some fat content.  Several protein-rich foods such as meat, cheese and peanut butter have a high fat content as well.  Dietary fats supply the body with fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, and K) and more than twice the calories as protein and carbohydrates, per gram.  They provide protective cushioning for the body and its internal organs.  Fats are also used to make hormones.  They’re important for good health, but why do they have such bad reputation? The reason is that not all fats are created equal.  

Fat is one of the most misunderstood nutrients.  There are saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and trans-fats.  Saturated fats are considered “unhealthy” and are found in foods such as coconut oil, butter, palm oil, cheese, and red meat.  Trans-fats are the other “unhealthy” fats also known as double-trouble for heart health.  They’re found in buttery, creamy delicious baked goods, fried foods, refrigerated doughs, snacks, creamer and stick margarines.  Monounsaturated fats are known as the healthy fats and are found in olive oil, avocados and nuts (almonds, cashews and peanuts).  Polyunsaturated fats are also good fats and can be found in fish, sunflower oil, seeds, nuts and oysters. When choosing foods, it is best to choose from the healthy fats.

The role of fat in the body is important.  Unfortunately, since it is the most misunderstood nutrient with a bad rep, people tend to avoid it.  One of the most important roles of healthy fat in the body is to make hormones.  Hormones are chemical messengers that travel throughout the body performing various functions such as helping bones grow, making more blood cells, controlling fluid volume and heart rate, affecting the speed at which calories are spent, and so much more.  Your endocrine system’s job is to send out hormones to tell the body what to do.  When the hormones are out of balance from deficiency it can lead to problems such as diabetes, weight changes, infertility, weak bones, slowed growth and development, sexual dysfunction, reproduction issues, and mood shifts to name a few.  

As you can see, healthy fats are a necessary and essential part of our diet. Eating a diet high in saturated and trans-fats can lead to high LDL (low-density lipids) cholesterol levels, heart disease and stroke.  By including foods like avocado, olive oil, nuts, seeds, fish, eggs and soy in your diet you’re helping your body’s chemical messengers do their job.  According to dietary guidelines, your total fat intake should not exceed 20% to 35% of your daily calories. For instance, a 2,000 calorie diet should have between 400 to 700 calories from fat or 44 to 77 grams of fat per day.  The type of fats matter immensely because they’re not created equally even though all fats provide 9 calories per gram.  Check out choosemyplate.gov for more information on healthy fats or to learn about healthy fat sources to include in your diet. 

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