omega_6_fatty_acidsOnce upon a time in a land not so far away, someone said, “Fats made me fat, so I stopped eating them!” A group nearby overheard this, and started spreading the news around the land that “fats” are responsible for our excessive weight gain. Over time, many believed the solution was to stop eating fatty foods completely.  The truth is our bodies do require some fats to maintain a healthy body, eating fats does not make you fat.  Fats are not responsible for weight gain alone; eating an unbalanced, processed diet, and maintaining a sedentary lifestyle is. Any food, regardless of its form, eaten in excess will contribute to an unhealthy body, ultimately leading to weight gain.   Here are some easy guidelines for eating fats that help our body maintain a healthy internal environment.

The body requires sustenance encompassing both macro- and micronutrients. Macronutrients are large molecules consisting of proteins, carbohydrates and fats. The digestive system is responsible for breaking down food into individual molecules and preparing it for absorption using both mechanical and chemical digestion. This digestion process allows the body to absorb the nutrients it needs to operate. Proteins are broken down into amino acids, distributed throughout the body to help rebuild and maintain muscle fibers. Carbohydrates become monosaccharide molecules, providing an energy source. Fats become lubricating molecules, either fatty acids or glycerol, to help joints move smoothly and keep our skin stay supple so that it does not crack. Fats also provide a means for the distribution of fat-absorbing micronutrients throughout our body.

Micronutrients supply the body with the vitamins and minerals it needs. There are two types of micronutrients: water-soluble and fat-soluble. Some vitamins, such as B vitamins and vitamin C, dissolve in water. Water-soluble vitamins and minerals are dissolved into water during the early stages of digestion, then absorbed via the small intestine. Fat molecules absorb fat-soluble vitamins and minerals such as vitamins A, D, E and K, during digestion. Once absorbed they are distributed among the body via the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system also stores these vitamins for future use, which can lead to a build up or overdose over time if ingestion is higher than actual use. Thus fat-soluble vitamins and minerals should only be taken within recommended daily doses.

While fats are one of the three key components of macronutrients, it can be confusing to navigate through the “what’s” and “how’s” of eating them. There are three forms of fats found in food: unsaturated, saturated, and trans fats. Unsaturated fatty acids are liquid at room temperature, and are easily digested and absorbed. They also are beneficial for decreasing low-density (LDL) cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease and strokes, as well as maintaining healthy high-density (HDL) cholesterol levels. These are the fatty acids that are extremely beneficial and should be included in the daily diet.

There are two types of unsaturated fatty acids: mono- and poly-unsaturated. Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) are made up of one carbon bond (called a “double bond”), whereas polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are comprised of two or more carbon bonds. PUFAs also provide vitamin E, omega vitamins and other essential fat molecules. This means that unsaturated fats are more complex and have more essential nutrients than saturated fats. Thus, they are the healthiest fats to eat.

Saturated fatty acids are not horrible, but they should definitely be eaten in moderation. Saturated fats are found mostly in red meat and dairy products. They are solid at room temperature, are comprised of a single bond, and can become oversaturated by hydrogen molecules. In other words, they are difficult to digest. Red meat doesn’t even begin to digest until it hits acid in the stomach!  Saturated fats are not unavoidable, as they are found in some unsaturated fatty acids, such as olives, peanuts, and fish.  Saturated fats are moderately healthy and should be eaten in extreme moderation. The American Heart Association recommends that diets consist of no more than 6% to 7% saturated fatty acids. Basically, one serving here and there won’t hurt, but don’t go hog wild and eat an entire cow!

Trans fats are the worst of all fats. They are commercially processed fats typically found in prepackaged, processed foods. Trans fats can also be found in many fast food products. Reading labels will help to avoid this fatty acid. Foods containing “partially hydrogenated” or “hydrogenated” anything should be avoided, as these are commercially processed foods that contain trans fats. Indulging in fast food or processed foods may happen. As long as the bulk of the diet is comprised of healthy, unprocessed, unrefined foods, the body will remove harmful molecules via the elimination system.

Knowing the benefits of fatty acids and what they are makes it easier to view them as the healthy food source they are and to include them in a healthy diet. Fats are necessary for optimal health, so approximately 30% of your diet should consist of fats. The remainder should include 40% from carbohydrates and an additional 30% from protein.

The best fats to eat are unsaturated fatty acids like avocados, olives, nuts, seeds, coconut oil, flaxseeds, algae and fish. A single serving is typically 2 TBSP of oil (olive, coconut, flax, etc.), ¼ of a regular avocado, ¼ cup of nuts or seeds, and 3 ounces of fish or algae. A good rule of thumb is to include one fatty acid serving per meal or snack. The simple math is multiply total calories by 30%. That will provide the ideal number of fat calories to consume in order to maintain a healthy body. This will also eliminate unnecessary blame for any weight gain or prevention of weight loss, because FATS DO NOT MAKE YOU FAT!

References

Monounsaturated Fats. (2015, October 5). In American Heart Association. Retrieved from http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Nutrition/Monounsaturated-Fats_UCM_301460_Article.jsp#.V823IZMrLVo

Polyunsaturated Fats. (2015, October 7). In American Heart Association. Retrieved from http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Nutrition/Polyunsaturated-Fats_UCM_301461_Article.jsp#.V823epMrLVo

The Food Guide. (n.d.). In USDA. Retrieved from http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/sites/default/files/archived_projects/FGPPamphlet.pdf

Thibodeau, G., & Patton, K. (2012). Structure & Function of the Body (14th ed., pp. 351-391). St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Mosby.

Top Food Sources of Saturated Fat in the US. (n.d.). In Harvard: School of Public Health. Retrieved from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/top-food-sources-of-saturated-fat-in-the-us

What is Cholesterol?. (n.d.). In National Heart, Lung & Blood Institute. Retrieved from http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/hbc

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