Authored by Dustin Nelson, UMN Public Health Nutrition
Fat is an important nutrient for the body as it is critical for proper growth and development and maintaining normal health. Fat has a whopping 9 calories per gram which makes it a form of stored energy that the body uses for energy. Fat also acts as an insulator for tissues and as a cushion for vital organs. Furthermore, it is an important part of cell membranes. Without fats, the body would not function properly as cells would not be able to do their everyday operations. Nearly all foods contain fats (even carrots have trace amounts of it)! All fats play a role in health and all are really okay to eat. One just needs to consider the amount they eat.
There are three main types of fats that might be seen on a food label: saturated fat, unsaturated fat, and trans fat. Each of these fatty acids is a chain of carbon atoms with hydrogen attached. Saturated fats tend to be solid at room temperature, while unsaturated fats will remain liquid. In other words: fats are solid and oils are liquid. A hydrogenated shortening, like Crisco, is made up of vegetable oils (unsaturated) that have been artificially saturated with hydrogen atoms. For majority of the 20th century, these shortenings were considered to be healthier than saturated fats. Turns out the shape of these hydrogenated fats, the “trans” configuration, was even worse for health than expected. Food for thought – the average American eats about six grams of trans fats a day! While these fats exist naturally in foods, such as meats and dairy, ideally an adult should consume less than two grams of trans fat a day (zero if possible).
The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans state that an adult’s calorie intake should consist of 20-35% of fats. Of this calorie range, no more than 10% should be from saturated fats. Saturated fats are found mainly in meat and whole milk dairy products such as ice cream, milk, and cheese. The remaining fats should be unsaturated fats. Of these unsaturated fats, it’s of upmost importance to incorporate omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Both of these fats are essential fatty acids that cannot be synthesized by the body and therefore must be incorporated through food.
There are numerous omega-3 rich foods are supplied at the farmers market! Some great sources are ground flaxseed, eggs, salmon, and grass-fed meat products. Omega-3 fatty acids are critical as they contribute to blood clotting, build cell membranes in the brain, and protect against heart disease. They have also been shown to lower blood pressure and heart rate and improve blood vessel function. High doses have shown to decrease inflammation and lower triglycerides.
When cooking a healthy meal at home, make it a goal to incorporate healthy fats into a colorful dinner plate – fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables. After all, they are nature’s original fast foods!