The Role of Fats and Oils in a Healthy Diet

Karen Frazier
olive oil

Contrary to popular belief, fats are an important part of eating a healthy diet. They play many vital roles in our bodies including providing energy. In fact, fat is your muscles' primary source of fuel when they are at rest and during light activity. It also insulates your body and protects your organs, such as the kidneys, from injury. This nutrient is also necessary to help absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K. In addition, fat in a meal helps the food to digest more slowly, maintaining satiation longer. It also adds flavor and texture to foods.

Now that you know how important fat is to a balanced eating plan, you may be wondering why it is left out of some weight loss programs. That is because fat is more calorically dense than carbohydrate and protein: one gram provides nine calories, whereas carbohydrate and protein supply four calories per gram. A tablespoon of fat (solid or oil) contains 120 calories.

Best Varieties

There are three types of fats found in the American diet: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. These come in two forms: solid or liquid. Saturated fats tend to be solid at room temperature (think butter and lard), while poly- and monounsaturated types tend to be liquid at room temperature (think vegetable oils). Some examples of the monounsaturated variety are olive oil and canola oil. Some polyunsaturated types are corn, sunflower, safflower, and soybean oils. In actuality, all fats contain all three of these types. The classification as a saturated, mono-, or polyunsaturated is determined by the one that exists in the greatest concentration in that particular item.

Saturated fat can lead to high cholesterol, and is more of a contributor to high blood cholesterol than eating too much cholesterol itself. Most of your intake should be from mono- and polyunsaturated fats. The essential fatty acids, omega-3 and omega-6, are polyunsaturated that the body cannot make itself, and must be consumed via the diet. They are important to immune function and vision, and form vital body structures. Omega-3, specifically in fish oil, reduces the blood's tendency to clot, lowering the risk for a heart attack.

The Mayo Clinic suggests increasing intake of omega-3 fatty acids, which may help lower triglycerides, reduce inflammation, and decrease the risk of heart attacks.You can find omega-3 fatty acids in flaxseed, walnuts, and fatty fish. Omega-6 fatty acids are present in so many foods that it usually does not take an effort to ensure adequate consumption. Mayonnaise, margarine, salad dressing, and whole grains easily give you enough.

Trans-Fatty Acids

Trans-fatty acids have gotten a lot of press lately, replacing saturated fat as the new "bad" fat. In reality, both are dangerous to your health because they raise LDL cholesterol levels (the "bad" cholesterol) and lower HDL cholesterol levels (the "good" cholesterol). When fats that naturally occur as liquids are manipulated to be solid at room temperature, they are hydrogenated, which forms trans-fatty acids. Look on food labels for "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil." Products containing this ingredient are bound to be high in trans-fatty acids. Look for the most liquid form you can find: oils, spray butter or margarine, soft tub margarine. Use less stick margarine, shortening, fried foods (french fries, chicken fingers), and fried baked goods (doughnuts, pastries), because these are high in trans-fats. Many processed foods contain trains-fatty acids. The best way to avoid them is to become a scrupulous label reader.

Fat Requirements

There is usually not a need to purposely add fat to an already healthy diet. You will find fats naturally occurring in fish, nuts, animal products, butter, margarine, oils, and even some vegetables and grains. According to the new USDA guidelines, women should take in about five to six teaspoons a day, while men should consume between six and seven teaspoons. Remember, this includes hidden sources, such as those already found in food, and not only added fats.

If you are unsure about the level of fat in your diet, talk with a doctor or nutritionist, who can help you choose a healthy diet that suits your body's needs.

The Role of Fats and Oils in a Healthy Diet