Healthy fats are an important part of a healthy, balanced diet.
Fats are often considered to be dangerous due to its association with obesity, heart disease, high cholesterol, and diabetes. However, healthy fats are an essential part of the diet and play a crucial role in maintaining a healthy life. All fats are high in energy: they can provide eight to nine calories per gram.
Dietary fats are a source of essential fatty acids, which the body is unable to produce on its own. The body can synthesise all fatty acids apart from linoleic, linolenic, and arachidonic acids. These essential fatty acids must be supplied through the diet. Any deficiencies in these fatty acids can lead to diminished growth and skin irritation.
The World Health Organisation recommends a total fat intake between 20% to 35% of total daily calories. At least 20% is necessary is vital to confirm adequate intake of total energy, essential fatty acids, and fat-soluble vitamins.
The three main types of fat found in food include saturated, trans, and unsaturated fats. Saturated fats can be found in meat and dairy products, plant-based foods (such as coconut oil and palm oil), chocolates, and cakes. Trans fats, which form when vegetable oil becomes solid at room temperature, can be found in processed foods, baked goods, and margarine. The consumption of both saturated and trans fats should be limited in a healthy diet. It is recommended that men should not consume above 30 grams and women should not eat more than 20 grams of saturated fat per day.
Too much fat in your diet, particularly saturated fats, can lead to raised cholesterol levels. Cholesterol is produced in the liver and is carried in the blood as either low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or high-density lipoprotein (HDL). Elevated levels of low-density lipoprotein can increase the risk of strokes and heart disease.
Reducing dietary saturated fat consumption is key to lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease. This is because dietary saturated fat and cholesterol are crucial in the development of atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease.
There are many reasons as to why healthy fats are important. So which foods actually contain healthy fats?
Types of healthy fats
Unsaturated fats are a healthy type of fat. Unsaturated fats can either be monounsaturated or polyunsaturated.
Monounsaturated fats help maintain a healthy heart by regulating levels of good cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein) and reducing levels of bad cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein). Monounsaturated fats can be found in olive oil, rapeseed oil, avocados, and nuts (such as almonds, brazil nuts, and peanuts).
Polyunsaturated fats have valuable roles in human health by helping to reduce the levels of bad cholesterol in the blood. There are two major types of polyunsaturated fats: omega-3 and omega-6. Sources of omega-3 fats include walnuts, tofu, soybeans, flaxseed, and fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, kippers, herring, and trout. Omega-6 fats are found in vegetable oils, including rapeseed, sunflower, corn, and nut. It is advised that sufficient omega-3 levels are achieved by eating at least two portions of oily fish every week.
Benefits of healthy fats
Fats provide the body with healthy energy levels. For this reason, fats are particularly important for athletes and individuals who take part in more intense workouts.
Fats help the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins: vitamins A, D, and E. Fats are used by the body to produce outer cell membranes, hormones, and other chemicals. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are essential in hormone production. Hormones are chemical messengers that regulate physiological activities in the body, driving growth, development, recovery, and overall health. A lack of fat in your diet could lead to hormonal imbalances.
Healthy fats are vital in controlling inflammation, blood coagulation, and brain development. In particular, omega-3 fatty acids are involved in the regulation of inflammation levels. Omega-6 fatty acids play a critical role in supporting healthy brain and muscle functioning.
Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids may provide benefits for a variety of conditions, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and autoimmune diseases.
Monounsaturated fats are important for insulin sensitivity, fat storage, reduced cravings, and weight loss. Replacing saturated and trans fats with unsaturated fats have been associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. A study published in Diabetes Care discovered a 52% reduction in the risk of diabetes in individuals who consumed a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil or nuts. A Mediterranean diet derives a high proportion of calories from plant and vegetable oil sources of fat. Mediterranean diets highlight the importance of eating fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, and olive oil. Another study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil or nuts resulted in a reduced risk of heart attacks, strokes, or death by 30%.
Additionally, there is a connection between monounsaturated fats and bone strength. A study published in The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging found that consuming monounsaturated fats – which are rich in essential fatty acids – can improve bone health.
The importance of the right amount of healthy fats in your daily diet is clear. Eating too much fat can lead to weight gain and obesity-related health problems, whereas eating below the recommended amount presents different problems.
Written by Albina Babu, MSc
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Estruch, R., et al. (2013). Primary prevention of cardiovascular disease with a Mediterranean diet. New England Journal of Medicine, 368(14), pp.1279-1290.
Salas-Salvadó, J., et al. (2011). Reduction in the incidence of type 2 diabetes with the Mediterranean diet: results of the PREDIMED-Reus nutrition intervention randomized trial. Diabetes Care, 34(1), pp.14-19.
Paunescu, A.C., et al. (2014). Saturated and monounsaturated fatty acid status is associated with bone strength estimated by calcaneal ultrasonography in Inuit women from Nunavik (Canada): a cross-sectional study. The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging, 18(7), pp.663-671.
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