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Healthy Fat Basics: Navigating Dietary Fats for Optimal Health


healthy fats

Introduction

 

I usually like to write about topics that I have not yet seen explained in a clear and actionable way. Conflicting health messages are everywhere, and as I sift through such content, I like to distil (and share with you!) the main takeaways to establish a common understanding of a specific health topic.

 

Onto today’s topic: fat! It’s a word that triggers many, but I am here to explain to you the aspects of fat that are health-promoting, not to scaremonger. In this post, I will cover both dietary fat, the fat found in foods, and body fat, including exploring any links between the two.

 

Because the same word, “fat”, us used to describe both types, you may think "eating fat will make you fat". That is not entirely true! Read on to find out about healthy fat basics, including types of fats, when to be concerned, and what can you can do to minimise your downside risks from fat.


 


unhealthy fats


Are all fats created equal? Types of dietary fats

 

Dietary fat, the fat in our food, is a macro-nutrient that is essential for a variety of bodily functions, for the absorption of some vitamins (A, D, E, & K) and for healthy brain function. 

 

However, not all fats are created equal. While the number of calories per gram of fat is the same across the board, fats can differ in their structure, i.e. the number of double-bonds. I know, I am taking you back to high school chemistry class!


It is the specific structure of the fatty acid that plays a part in how our bodies metabolise it; i.e. how quickly the fat is “burnt” and how much energy is required to “burn” the consumed fat.

 

Here are the 4 types of fats and some basic takeaways for you:


1.      Mono-unsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs): They are characterised by having one double carbon bond (1). Examples of MUFA rich foods are olives, olive oil, avocadoes, avocado oil, pistachios, almonds, peanuts, cashews, nut butters, seeds, and so on.


In general, MUFAs are all considered health-promoting types of fat to incorporate more of in your diet. They are part and parcel of the Mediterranean Diet celebrated as the “holy grail” of anti-inflammation.

 

Takeaway: Include more MUFAs as part of a balanced diet.


2.      Poly-unsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs): Characterised by having 2 or more double carbon bonds. PUFAs comprise of Omega-3 sources like oily fish (e.g. salmon, sardines, mackerel, and herring) but also the Omega-6 sources like seed oils (sunflower oil, canola oil, corn oil, etc.) and any animal products that were fed a corn or soybean feed. 


Omega-6 in itself is not bad, but we already consume A LOT of it in our modern westernised diets, which tend to have a ratio of 1/16 Omega-3 to Omega-6, whereas ideally that ratio should be closer to 1 (2).

 

Takeaway: Include more Omega-3 rich foods and reduce Omega-6 rich food sources.


3.      Saturated Fats: They are structurally characterised by having no carbon double bond. Saturated fat rich foods include coconut oil, animal meat including beef, lamb, and poultry, and their by-products like eggs, butter, milk, cream, cheese, and yogurt.


Suitability of saturated fats is highly personal. It depends on whether your lipid metabolism is healthy, i.e. can tolerate excess fats and whether you have a genetic predisposition for high cholesterol, triglycerides, and high blood pressure.

 

I personally love all dairy products; however, I need to be mindful of quantities because I know from my blood tests that I have issues metabolising lipids well, putting me at risk of cardiovascular disease.

 

Takeaway: Before indulging in saturated fats, consider getting a basic lipid profile blood test and understanding if you have any genetic pre-dispositions. For some people, it is wise to limit intake of saturated fats, and for others it does not matter as much.


4.      Trans fats: They are typically synthetic fats found in all types of ultra-processed foods, including the commercial hydrogenated cooking oils and spreads, e.g. vegetable oils and some margarines. On food labels, trans fats are referred to as “partially hydrogenated oils“, so keep a lookout when shopping.

 

Trans fats are so detrimental to health that they are banned in some countries like Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, and some US states but not in the UK, shockingly. (3)


Takeaway: It is a “no-brainer” to eliminate Trans Fats from your diet.



 

quantity of healthy fats

Is it safe to consume unlimited “healthy fats”?

 

As with most things in life, moderation is key. Because fats are calorie-dense, about 9 calories per gram, more is usually not more for health. It is therefore helpful to have a rough guide to how much fat is considered “reasonable”, and again this is all personal.

 

Most standard dietary guidelines advocate for less than 10% of the calories from Saturated Fats and up to a maximum of 35% of daily calories coming from all types of dietary fat. (4)

 

So, translating that to a standard daily requirement of 2,000 calories for the average person, indicates a maximum of 200 calories from Saturated Fats and a maximum of 500 calories from MUFAs and PUFAs. As mentioned, a gram of fat typically contains 9 about calories. So, a maximum of 22g of saturated fat per day and 55g from MUFAs and PUFAs.

 

What does 22 grams of Saturated Fat look like in practice? (Please use this only as a guide for the purpose of creating an understanding, not for the sake of counting grams and calories. Note: these amounts are not additive.)

 

The maximum daily saturated fat intake recommendation of 22g is equivalent to either

·       3 tbsps of butter, or

·       1 kg of full fat yogurt, or

·       1 litre of whole milk, or

·       7 eggs, or

·       3 slices of cheddar cheese

 

But remember, these products are not exclusively made of Saturated Fats, they will have some PUFAs and MUFAs too. So, take a large egg as an example. It will have about 3g of saturated fat, but also 7g further of other fats. So consuming 7 eggs, will give you close to the entire fat daily intake recommendation. Something to keep in mind.

 

What does 55 grams of MUFAs and PUFAs look like?


The maximum daily MUFA and PUFA intake recommendation of 55g is equivalent to either:

 

·       5 tbsps of extra virgin olive oil, or

·       1.5 large avocadoes, or

·       4 fillets of salmon, or

·       3 x 30g (a handful) servings of nuts

 

Takeaway: We cannot eat an “unlimited” amount of fats, even if it is the “healthier” types.


Would you like a visual guide to fat types and healthy quantities?

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What happens when consuming a high-fat diet? Implications of excess fat consumption

 

For the sake of simplicity, I will dare to categorise fats into “healthy fats” (MUFAs and Omega-3s) and “unhealthy fats” (Omega-6s, Saturated Fats, and Trans Fats). This is admittedly a reductionist way of thinking (e.g. Saturated Fats in small quantities can absolutely be part of a healthy diet).

 

Consuming “healthy fats” in balanced quantities leads to many desirable health outcomes: (5)

 

·       Lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease

·       Lowers LDL cholesterol, a.k.a. “bad cholesterol”

·       Increases HDL cholesterol, a.k.a. “good cholesterol”

·       Lowers triglycerides

·       Lowers blood pressure

·       Contributes to antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects

·       Promotes insulin sensitivity (i.e. adequate insulin response to glucose intake)

·       Supports healthy weight management, if consumed in reasonable amounts

 

When “healthy fats” are consumed in excess of daily requirements, we tend to gain weight, and those excess fat calories can either be stored muscles, or in the subcutaneous layers of fat (i.e. the fat under our skin), if there is sufficient capacity.

 

Over-consumption of “healthy fats” though typically does not lead to dangerous visceral type of fat (i.e. the fat that is around our organs).

 

Consuming excess “unhealthy fats” literally has the opposite effects. It leads to weight gain, especially the dangerous visceral fat around the belly. If this persists, then we are at risk of obesity, insulin resistance, and inflammation, laying the grounds for potential chronic diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, neurodegenerative diseases, and cancer.

 

Takeaways:

·       Consuming "healthy fats" in reasonable quantities has many health-promoting qualities.

·       Consuming "unhealthy fats" is best reduced to a minimum, but small amounts will not radically negatively impact health.

·       Consuming limited amounts of Saturated Fats can be tolerated by some more than others.

 

 


Weight gain

 Is body fat directly linked to consuming excess fat?

Types of body fat and when to be concerned

 

Gaining body fat sometimes happens when we are spending less calories than we are consuming, so the excess energy is stored for later – a residual ancestral function back from when food was not as abundant as it is now!

 

There are two main types of body fat: subcutaneous fat (under the skin tissue) and visceral fat (internal fat around the organs). Visceral fat is more dangerous because it emits inflammatory signals to nearby organs and disrupts normal organ function, paving the way for a myriad of diseases.

 

Excess energy intake tends to be stored as visceral fat when “unhealthy fats” are consumed and as subcutaneous if excess quantities of “healthy fats” are consumed.

 

Having some subcutaneous fat is protective and acts as an energy store. However, when subcutaneous fat is in excess, it is often a sign that you have too much visceral fat too, which leads to health issues. (6)

 

A quick check of a few metrics can indicate your potential risk of visceral fat issues:

 

·       Waist circumference: Ideally to be <94cm for men and <80cm for women

·       Waist-to-hip ratio: Ideally to be <0.9 for men and <0.8 for women

 

Note that your waist is the narrowest part of your abdominal trunk, whereas the hip is the widest.

 

If you believe you may be at risk, you can consider requesting a DEXA body scan which will show a visual image of your body composition outlining muscle and fat percentages, and location of your fat stores.

 

Takeaways: If you believe you might be at risk of excess visceral fats, there are ways to gauge it roughly at home, or to measure it precisely using a scan called DEXA.


Top tips for a healthy body composition

 

As I like to think proactively about what I can do to reduce my health risk and lay the foundations for longevity, I quickly turn to the key actions I can take.

 

So here they are - all the usual suspects!


1. Nutrition: Following what I call a "Wholesome Diet" is key. It is a diet made up of whole foods, plant-rich, protein and fibre-rich, low in carbohydrates and sugars, and low in alcohol. “Healthy fats” are a main feature of this diet, but in moderate quantities.

 

2. Exercise: Any exercise is better than none. But if you can, 30 mins daily, and cardio especially tackles visceral fat the most.

 

3. Stress management: Any “me-time” is helpful, whether it is to do yoga, breathwork, mindfulness, journaling, meditation, or whatever. If you can, do so at the beginning of the day to set the right tone.

 

4. Sleep: Getting a minimum of 7-9 undisrupted hours of sleep is ideal. 

 

Who should be more attentive to dietary fat consumption?

 

Dietary fat will impact people differently depending on their lipid metabolism and genetic pre-disposition, so it is worth understanding your starting point, and tailoring your actions accordingly.

 

A simple lipid panel will help you determine your lipid profile: Total Cholesterol, LDL, HDL, and Triglycerides.

 

To know more about genetic pre-disposition, one can often tell from knowing family history, but there are interesting nutrigenomic type tests that can also be explored to help shed light on potential health vulnerabilities when it comes to lipid metabolism.

 

Conclusion

 

Understanding the different facets of a complex topic helps us make better decisions. For me the biggest takeaway here is that much of what we need to do is personal – linked to one’s own health starting point, goals, preferences, and constraints.

 

It is helpful to reflect on your specific needs and come up with a rough guide as to how you can make tweaks to further elevate your nutrition game.

 

If you want someone to bounce ideas with, I am always happy to explore more on a complimentary 30mins call together. Book here.

 

Thank you,

Nada

 

References:

 

 

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