We need dietary fats for our bodies to function properly and maintain good health. They are a source of energy and enhance the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. However, too much or not enough fat or the wrong kind of fat can negatively impact our health. This article summarizes the types of fats we eat and their effect on our health and touches upon food sources of dietary fat.
What are fats and where can we find them?
Dietary fats are a macronutrient found in food, which means it’s a nutrient that our body needs in large amounts. Along with waxes, sterols and fat-soluble vitamins, they belong in a larger group called lipids.
Dietary fats are mostly present in the form of triglycerides, which are compounds of glycerol and three fatty acids. Depending on their structure, they are classified as either saturated or unsaturated, the latter being further divided into monounsaturated, polyunsaturated or trans fats.
Both saturated and unsaturated fats can be found in all food groups, to a certain extent and the composition of fats themselves has an influence on our health. You can read more about it in our other article The functions of fats in the human body. But to sum up – foods containing a high amount of saturated fats, such as butter or lard, have been found to be linked to a more unfavourable impact on your body than unsaturated fats, found in vegetable oil and fish oil, which contain omega-6 and omega-3 polyunsaturated fats respectively. Still, keep in mind that some vegetable oils, such as palm or coconut oil are still relatively high in saturated fats.
Why should we eat fats?
Eating the right amount of the right types of fats is important for various reasons. Dietary fats are a macronutrient that is a major source of energy for our bodies, not to mention they are structural components of our cells. They also help the body absorb vitamins such as A, D, E and K, as they are fat soluble and cannot otherwise be absorbed in the gut.
Moreover, some fats, such as omega-3 and omega-6, are essential, as the body cannot produce them on its own and therefore need to be acquired through our diet. They are needed for vital processes, such as brain (60% of the brain is fat), eye and heart function, growth and development.
It is recommended that adults get approximately 20-35% of their energy intake from fat. This means that a moderately active woman, with a daily intake of 2000 kcal, should ingest somewhere between 44g and 78g of fat per day, while a man with a daily intake of 2500kcal should eat between 55g and 97g of fat per day. Generally, less than 10% of total energy intake should come from saturated fats (approximately 22g for women and 28g for men), the rest should come from unsaturated ones. Trans fats should also be eaten as little as possible, as they are harmful and not essential for our health. They should take up no more than 1% of the total energy intake (less than 2g for women and less than 3g for men).
What are the negative consequences of ingesting too much fat?
Weight gain is typically associated with eating too much fat, but obesity is not directly related to only a single nutrient. Its development pivots on the total daily energy intake and the balance between energy intake and energy use. If we ingest more calories than we use, the body will store them as body fat, no matter which nutrient they came from. However, fats are high in energy and thus provide more energy per unit than low fat foods.
Excess weight puts you at an increased risk of chronic diseases, for example cardiovascular diseases, metabolic syndrome, some types of cancer and type 2 diabetes. What is more, a high intake of fat can increase cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood. Cutting down on saturated fats and replacing them with unsaturated ones can potentially reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases and improve vision and brain function.
Interestingly, many Europeans exceed the recommended total fat intake, which is best illustrated by levels of obesity in Europe. The consumption of saturated fats also exceeds the recommended levels, with unsaturated intake levels being lower than advised. But at least trans fat consumption appears to be in line with the dietary recommendations.
Fats and choosing the correct type and amount of fat for yourself is important for your health. Together with other nutrients, strive towards maintaining a healthy level of fat in your everyday life, resulting in a well-balanced diet. Further improve your health with physical activity, to really balance out your energy use with energy intake, making obesity a problem you do not have to lose sleep over.
You can always help yourself achieve these goals with meals prepared especially for a healthy and balanced diet, such as our Tiny Giant meals, which you can take with you wherever you go and use them to replace unhealthy snacks and meals full of harmful trans fats.
Adapted from www.eufic.org