There are several types of fat that humans eat. Your body also makes its own fat when energy stores are plentiful and/or your body perceives a need to store fat. When speaking of dietary fat, along with carbohydrates and protein, it is considered one of the three macronutrients we eat for energy. Fat is an essential component to a healthy diet and is needed for many functions and processes in the body. Besides being a source of fuel for the body, fat also acts as a facilitator for some micronutrients, and some vitamins are only fat soluble which means they need fat in order to be distributed correctly in the body.
But with all the good that fat can do, fat has a downside. Studies indicate that fat is a marker for several conditions. Besides the obvious correlation to obesity, fat in its circulatory system role (called cholesterol) can be a contributor to heart disease and stroke. Some studies claim that fat plays a role in some types of cancer as well.
Healthy dietary fats come in two main forms: monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats are found in many foods and oils that humans consume. This type of fat has shown to be very helpful at lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol and raise HDL (good) cholesterol. You can find monounsaturated fat in foods such as avocados, olive oils, many types of nuts, fish, red meats and canola oil (among others). Polyunsaturated fats have shown many cancer fighting properties and are very important to central nervous system upkeep and repair. They are also important in the fight against cardiovascular disease as they help keep the arteries clear. There have been studies showing the positive effects polyunsaturated fats have on brain health and retinal development/repair. You can find polyunsaturated fats in foods such as walnuts, sunflower seeds, tuna, olive oil, seaweed, sardines, sesame seeds, whole grain wheat, and wild salmon.
It’s important to note that Cholesterol should not immediately be associated with health problems. Many foods are high in cholesterol, but a balanced amount of LDL and HDL cholesterol has not been shown to significantly increase risk of any heart disease related issues. Only when LDL cholesterol rises significantly, or when the total cholesterol levels rise precipitously do we see correlation to heart issues, therefore, it’s fine to consume foods with cholesterol. But as with anything, moderation is the key.
Unhealthy fats come in many forms. Fat becomes a problem when it is saturated either naturally or via a process called hydrogenation. Without going deeply into the chemistry of saturated fats, these fat types have no double bonds between the carbon atoms of the fatty acid chain. Because of this altered chemical makeup, saturated fats can bind to the arterial walls when in their blood transport form (triglycerides) and are a direct link to atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and thus heart disease and stroke. It’s worth noting that there are special types of saturated fats that are not considered to be as bad (and actually good) for you. Coconut oil, for example is made up primarily of saturated fats (from a fat perspective) but because of its chemical makeup is considered a good fat.
How much fat should humans consume? There’s much debate about the amount of fats humans should consume. To be truthful, there’s no right answer as of yet, all we do know for sure is that for long-term good health, we should consume a minimum of approximately 12 percent of our daily macronutrients as fats; and of that 12 percent, about 85 to 90 percent of that should be in the form of healthy fats. Some diets call for as much as 80 percent of the diet comes from fats. I don’t normally recommend this type of diet unless supervised by a trained medical professional. There are other reasons as well. Fat shows significant advantages to those with brain and CNS problems (such as epilepsy) and has been shown to reduce, and in some cases eliminate seizures completely. Because of the high calorie content of fat (9 calories per gram, as opposed to 4 calories per gram from both carbohydrates and proteins), fat calories can add up quickly. I would recommend being diligent in your research about fats and not simply rule out certain sources because of the media hype. For instance, the negative connotation of red meat in the media with regards to coronary artery disease is vastly overhyped. Red meats contain many vital nutrients for the body, along with fats, many of the minerals we need in small quantities are abundant in red meats and darker white meats. Having red meats on occasion can still be part of a healthy diet.