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Dietary Fats 101

High fat diets, no-carb recipes, cookbooks, restaurants, menu items and supplements are popping up so fast it’s making my head spin.

But let’s back up.

What are fats anyway? We know there are good ones and bad ones, right? Where do we find these fats and what makes the good good and the bad bad?

Fat is one of the three macronutrients that deliver calories. Fat gives 9 calories per gram, more than carbs and protein combined. This is why fat was demonized back in the 80s and 90s and started the low-fat food craze.

BUT! They ain't all bad. There are some fats that are terrible for you, some that are okay only in moderation and others that I urge you to eat plenty of because they are essential to our health.

Let’s take a look.


Trans Fat

As bad of a “bad fat” as you can get. This is a fat you want to eat as little of as possible.

This is because trans fats are fats that have been “hydrogenated” which I’m sure is a long word you’ve seen on a food label before. We’ll go over what that word means in a minute, but first.

A history lesson.

When food was in short supply in 1869, Napoleon III offered a reward for someone who could make a butter alternative for the French troops. Thus margarine was born...from a chemist.

That’s right, it was discovered that, by manipulating certain elements of fat, you could come up with a butter alternative that could be instantly spread on bread out of the refrigerator.

Fast forward to World War II when it was discovered that this special kind of fat did not spoil easily, making it a (literal) lifesaver for American soldiers who needed food that they could travel with for weeks at a time without it spoiling.

And that’s how trans fats came to America.

Trans fats are made by a process called hydrogenation. Basically, chemists force hydrogen into fat molecules to change the fat’s chemical structure. Fats naturally go rancid quickly and easily, but adding hydrogen slows this process tremendously.

This is why many packaged and processed foods have trans fats. Lengthening the shelf life means that food companies can keep food on the shelves longer which means less they have to produce which means more $$$ for them.

That's why it seems like you can keep tub margarine in your fridge F O R E V E R.

The problem is...when we eat these man-made hydrogenated oils, they do horrible things to our body. In the 90s, we discovered that trans fats increase your risk for heart disease and stroke while raising your bad cholesterol.

It literally has zero health benefits.

Given this fact, the recommendation is that no more than 1% (hopefully even less than that) of your calories come from trans fats.

You can find trans fats in very small amounts naturally in red meat and full fat dairy. But, more common and significant sources of hydrogrenated or trans fats are:

  • Baked goods like cookings, biscuits, pastries and cakes

  • Margarine

  • Shortening (i.e. Crisco)

  • Fried foods

  • Canned frosting

  • Some frozen pizzas


Saturated Fat

Saturated fats also get their name because of their chemical structure. To put it in the most basic terms, fats are made up of a long chain of carbons and hydrogens. If all of the hydrogens are connected by a single bond, all of the chemical bonds are filled up and the fat is called saturated...with hydrogens.

Make sense?

If the carbons are connected with a double bond, though, there are no bonds left for a hydrogen to connect to. This type of structure is called “unsaturated.”

But we’ll get to that later.

Saturated fats are better than trans fats because they weren't made in a lab, but unfortunately, are also in the category of bad fats.

Saturated fats, like trans fats, are solid at room temperature. This is bad news for our arteries because, when you eat too much saturated fat, it becomes solid in your arteries also, forming into plaque and causing blockages eventually.

That’s how you have a heart attack.

The good news is, as long as you are only eating foods rich saturated fat every once in a while, you shouldn’t have these issues. You also have wiggle room if you exercise regularly, because your heart can pump blood more efficiently and therefore handle saturated fat more easily.

You find saturated fat almost exclusively in animal products. The exception is in tropical oils like coconut and palm oil. Here is a list of more common sources:

  • Fatty cuts of meat

  • Coconut and coconut oil

  • Processed meats (i.e. bologna, hots dogs)

  • Italian meats (i.e. salami, pastrami, pepperoni)

  • Full fat dairy

  • Heavy cream, whipped cream and butter

  • Cream-based sauces (i.e. alfredo, Caesar, ranch, etc.)

With this in mind, choose lower fat dairy and lean animal protein whenever possible. Also stick to oil, tomato and/or vinegar-based sauces like vinaigrettes, marinara, mustard and steak sauce.


Monounsaturated Fat

Now on to the good news. Unsaturated fats!

As mentioned above, unsaturated fats get their name from their chemical structure. When a double bond is in the fat chain, a hydrogen won’t fit. So, the fat molecule is not completely “saturated” with hydrogens.

This makes them liquid at room temperature.

Which is good news for our health because our circulatory system handles unsaturated fat molecules much more easily and they don't hang around in our arteries like the saturated ones do.

In the case of monounsaturated fats, “mono” comes from the Greek for “one.” This means that the molecules of monounsaturated fats only have one double bond.

Whew. This is why dietitians take so much chemistry.

I’m getting triggered now. LET’S MOVE ON.

How else are unsaturated fats different from bad fats? What makes them the good guys?

Because of their chemical structure, unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. So, you’ll often see unsaturated fats in the form of “oils.“ These oils give the body positive health benefits, especially when it comes to heart health as they are particularly powerful at lowering bad cholesterol.

Monounsaturated fats in particular are also used to nourish your body cells and keep them strong as well as being rich in Vitamin E. Vitamin E is a nutrient than fights inflammation in the body (which is good!)

It’s recommended that you use unsaturated fats in place of saturated fats as often as possible. Here are some common sources of monounsaturated fat:

  • Olives and olive oil

  • Canola oil

  • Sesame oil

  • Safflower oil

  • Nut butters (i.e. peanut butter and almond butter)

  • Nuts (i.e. almonds and cashews) and seeds

  • Avocados


Polyunsaturated Fat

Polyunsaturated fats are very similar to monounsaturated when it comes to health benefits and appearance. “Poly-” comes from Greek and means “many.” The term is attached to polyunsaturated fats to mean that the fatty acid has multiple double bonds, unlike monounsaturated fats that only have one.

This is good because the more unsaturated the fat is, the better it can be for your body. Like monounsaturated fats, these fats are heart-healthy.

Common sources of polyunsaturated fat are:

  • Cooking oils (i.e. soybean oil, corn oil, sunflower oil)

  • Fish and seafood

  • Soybeans

  • Canola oil

  • Nuts and seeds



My faveeeeeeeee

These are a type of polyunsaturated fat and they get their name from (oh you guessed it look at the big brain on you) its chemical structure!

I’m not going to bother even launching into another chemical discussion before I bore you, so just know that “Omega” is simply named for a special carbon in the chain and “3” represents the location of that special carbon on the chain.

So what’s makes them special?

It was discovered fairly recently (in the 1920s actually) that these fats are special to our health because of their chemical structure. This particular fat is not only good for our heart, but can support brain health (with athletes, we recently started using them to prevent and sometimes even lessen the severity of concussions), fight inflammation and recent evidence suggests it can help build muscle.

Another important characteristic about Omega-3s is that the body cannot make Omegas on its own. This is what we call an “essential” nutrient. This is because, not only do we need them for health, but we HAVE to get them from food.

As long as you are eating at least two servings (a serving is about 3 ounces) of fatty fish a week, you shouldn’t have to worry about missing out on this essential fat. However, if you don’t eat fish or you are a vegan or vegetarian, this can be challenging.

Below is a bigger list of where you can find Omega-3 fatty acids in food:

  • Mackerel

  • Salmon

  • Sea bass

  • Sardines

  • Herring

  • Trout

  • Shrimp

  • Flaxseeds

  • Chia seeds

  • Walnuts


The bottom line?

I love fats! They serve an important function in the body, make a bulking cycle much easier and are way more essential to our health than many people give this macronutrient credit for.

Want me to expand on something in this article? DM me on Insta! We can chat.


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