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Healthy Fats: What You Need To Know About Dietary Fats

Fats still get a bad rap. It's time to change that.

Even though the low-fat food craze is long over, many people still fear fat.

"Fat = Bad" is ingrained in our minds, despite clear evidence that a low-fat diet is not the answer to longevity, health or weight loss. To make matters worse, many low-fat versions of processed foods have just as many calories, because the fat is replaced with added carbohydrates/sugar.

Fat is essential to many bodily functions and, importantly, makes many foods more delicious! So, what's the deal with fat? Let's dive in a little deeper.

I will share my most important point first: Don't get too hung up on the exact amount of fat you are eating each day. Instead, try to limit the added fats in your diet, and get most of your dietary fat from foods naturally higher in fat, such as nuts and seeds (and their butters), avocado, olives, fatty fish and eggs.

This approach is beneficial, because in addition to providing healthy fats, these foods can offer vitamins, minerals, protein, phytonutrients and fibre, which help to nourish and satisfy you. Limit added fats, including oils, salad dressings, margarine, butter and mayonnaise, to two to three tablespoons per day — less if you are consuming more of the higher fat foods previously mentioned. While eating fat has many benefits, remember that it is still high in calories.

When it comes to choosing the added fats you use in your diet, variety is key. Don't just use olive oil for everything like many people do. Switch it up and keep your taste buds and body happy and healthy.

Keep at least three types of oil on hand with different flavour profiles and smoke points to use for different culinary purposes. And no, coconut oil does not have any magical properties or benefits over any other oil. It is fine to use as one of your culinary oils in moderation, but there is no reason to use it any more than other oils (in fact, you may want to consider using it less).

We need fats to make many important biological compounds, which regulate functions such as blood clotting. Fat is also a key component of cell membranes, provides us with energy, and is required to absorb and transport fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Fat adds a pleasing mouth feel to foods and helps us feel satisfied long after eating a meal.

About 20 to 35 per cent of your calories should come from fat. In other words, for someone eating a 2000 calorie diet, they should aim to get about 400 to 700 calories from fat. What does 400 calories worth of fat look like?

Here's an example of about 400 calories worth of fat (about 45 grams):

  • 12 almonds (10 grams fat)
  • 8 large olives (5 grams fat)
  • 2 tsp. olive oil (10 grams fat)
  • 1 tsp. butter (5 grams fat)
  • 3 tbsp. coconut milk (10 grams fat)
  • 1 tbsp. salad dressing (5 grams fat)

Now, lets talk essential fats. The body cannot produce these fats and therefore they need to be included in the diet. There are two essential fats: alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid) and linoleic acid (an omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid).

An adult male needs 1.6 grams of alpha-linolenic acid a day, while an adult female needs 1.1 grams per day. Ground flaxseed is a great source of alpha-linolenic acid, providing about two grams per tablespoon. For linoleic acid, men need about 17 grams/day and women need 12 grams.

If you look at those numbers, it is clear that the body requires much more omega-6 fats than omega-3 fats. So why is there all this hype about getting more omega-3 (anti-inflammatory) fats in our diets? The simple answer is that our modern diets, especially ultra-processed foods, are laden with omega-6 fats and poor sources of omega-3 fats. Therefore, despite needing less omega-3s, many of us still aren't getting enough. Read more about omega-3 fats and find out some good sources of them, here.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs)

These healthful fats have more than one double bond in them ("poly") and are liquid at room temperature. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids fall under this category. Sources of PUFAs include safflower, sunflower, corn and soybean oils, as well as walnuts, flaxseeds and cold-water fish. Try to incorporate more omega-3 fats into your diet.

Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs)

MUFAs, also known as omega-9 fatty acids, are also healthful fats that are typically liquid at room temperature. They have one ("mono") double bond in the fatty acid chain and are not essential to consume, because the body can make them. Examples of good sources of MUFAs include canola oil, olive oil, salmon, eggs, cashews and avocados. Note that many sources of fat provide both MUFAs and PUFAs.

If you have gotten this far in the article, it may have become clear to you that an omega 3-6-9 supplement is a waste of money. We get plenty of omega-6s and we can make omega-9s ourselves.

Saturated fatty acids (SFAs)

Saturated fats have no double bonds. This fat is found in animal foods (e.g. dairy and meats) and in plant foods (e.g. coconuts, palm oil and lard). Many ultra-processed foods (e.g. pastries, cakes and high fat snack foods) are also sources of saturated fat. The effect saturated fat has on our health is not clear, and may depend on the source.

Overall, focus on reducing your ultra-processed food intake to reduce the saturated fat in your diet and worry less about the other food sources of saturated fat. I constantly get asked the "butter or margarine" question and, in short, my answer is almost always: "butter in moderation."

Trans fats

Trans fats are found naturally in some animal-based foods, which isn't a big concern. The most problematic source of trans fats, which may increase the risk of heart disease, are those formed when a liquid oil is hydrogenated to form a semi-solid or solid fat. This type of trans fat is found in many ultra-processed foods, because it helps to increase their shelf life. Try to avoid any food with a hydrogenated oil in it.

There is a lot to know when it comes to fats. Diving into the vast body of research on fats can lead to endless hours of analyzing studies. But if you cook at home often, avoid ultra-processed foods, eat a variety of fats, and limit your added fat intake to less than two to three tablespoons (mostly unsaturated) per day, then you are likely on the right track. So enjoy the flavour and texture fat adds to your favourite foods!

Melissa Baker is a registered dietitian with a masters degree in nutrition communication. She loves being a part of the exciting nutrition world, and helping to improve the health and quality of life of Canadians. Every month, Melissa examines nutrition trends in her HuffPost Canada Living franchise, "What's The Deal?" For more from Melissa, check out her blog

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