Perhaps the most confusing and misunderstood of the macronutrients is fat. The answer to the above question is it depends on how much and what type of fat you get. Our bodies need some fat. Fat helps us absorb certain nutrients (think fat soluble vitamins) and produce certain hormones. They protect our organs and keep the body warm as well as providing a source of energy in the absence of glucose. Our brain function depends on fats too. But (and there’s always a but!), too much fat, particularly saturated fat, opens you up to a host of issues including cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. In addition, trans fats have been linked to chronic diseases and in particular, have been found to have a dangerous effect on cholesterol - raising the LDL (bad cholesterol) and lowering HDL (good cholesterol).
What is Fat?
First, let's understand what fat is. Fats are one of the three macronutrients our bodies need along with carbohydrates and protein. In simple terms, the majority of fats are called triglycerides which are glycerol molecules bonded by fatty acids. Fats are categorized as “saturated” or “unsaturated”. Saturated fats have all of their carbons saturated with hydrogen atoms and are solid at room temperature (think coconut oil). Unsaturated fats do not have all their carbons bonded to hydrogen atoms and are liquid at room temperature (think olive oil).
You may have heard of omega-3s, omega-6s, and trans fats. What’s it all mean? Omega-3s and Omega-6s are essential fatty acids. They are essential because the body cannot make them - only plants can make them. These have often been called the "good fats".
Trans fats are fats created by adding hydrogen to what would otherwise be a liquid fat so that it becomes a solid. This increases shelf life and stability (an advantage from an industrial food manufacturers standpoint). Most trans fat in the American diet is found in processed foods like crackers, frozen pizzas, microwave popcorn, breakfast sandwiches and in fried food.
How much Omega-3s and Omega 6s Should I Eat?
Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and are therefore called “good fats”. Omega-6s, while still an essential nutrient, are pro-inflammatory and should be consumed in a roughly 1:1 and up to 3:1 ratio with omega-3s (omega-6:omega-3). Unfortunately, in the standard American diet the typical person consumes them in a ratio anywhere from 16:1 to 50:1.
So what’s a person to do? How can you be sure you are getting enough fat, the right type of fat, not too much, and in the correct omega-6 to omega-3 ratio? Is there an app for that? Well, it’s actually much easier than you think.
A diet rich in a wide variety of unprocessed plant foods provides a healthy balance of these fatty acids. But eating too many animal products, including fish, all vegetable oils (yes, even the revered extra virgin olive oil!) and processed foods can all lead to an excess of omega 6s. I recommend chia seeds, ground flax seeds, and hemp seeds as excellent sources of omega-3s and omega-6s, but do be careful with the amount of nuts and seeds consumed since they are very calorie dense. One or two tablespoons a day should suffice (see Start Your Day Right Oatmeal below).
How many calories of fat is enough?
In addition, the ideal diet rich in plant foods should be comprised of no more than 15% of calories from fat and some sources advocate for less than 10%. A gram of fat (less than a thimble full) has 9 calories so you can see how quickly you can add calories to your diet by consuming fatty foods. That tablespoon of olive oil you might drizzle on your salad or add to your fry pan has 120 calories and virtually no nutrients. You can put your daily food consumption into an app like myfitnesspal to see how much fat you are actually getting.
The Danger of Saturated Fat
I want to emphasize that study after study demonstrate the link between our number one killer - heart disease - and saturated fat. Do not believe any source that tells you that saturated fat does not contribute to coronary artery disease. Check out this article for a more detailed understanding of the role of saturated fat in heart disease.
Start Your Day Right Oatmeal
For my daily dose of healthy fats, I start with a big bowl of oatmeal topped with lots of colorful berries, and chia and ground flax seeds. Not only do you get your daily dose of healthy fats, but the oats are a complex carb that releases glucose more slowly into your system keeping you supplied with a steady stream of energy for your morning. The colorful berries are loaded with antioxidants to reduce inflammation, destroy rogue cells in your body, and boost your immune system. Here is my recipe for Start Your Day Right Oatmeal.
Check out these resources if you want to learn more about fats in a whole foods, plant-based diet: