EatingHealthy.org

Fats Explained

Fats provide energy for the body and play a role in the absorption of vitamins during digestion. Although the word “fat” sometimes gets a bad name, fats are crucial for health and development.  During infancy and childhood, fats are an essential nutrient and calorie source.  Children and adults alike benefit from the ways in which fats enhance the taste of foods as well as their ability to produce a feeling of fullness.  Consumption of fats is also related to cholesterol levels in the body.  Importantly, however, different types of fat function differently in the body, which is why both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Heart Association make a general distinction between “good fats” (fats to make sure are regularly in your diet) and “bad fats” (fats to avoid when possible).

How Much Fat Should Be in My Diet?

According to the CDC, the percentage of fat that should be consumed daily depends on many factors but age in particular.  Children younger than 3 years old should get a minimum of 30% of their daily calorie needs from fat.  From ages 4 through 18, the range of calories from fat should be 25% to 35%.  This decreases to 20% to 35% for adults and seniors.  

What Types of Fat Are There?  What Does Each Do in the Body?

Naturally Occurring Fats

  • Saturated Fats – Although some plants do contain saturated fat, the majority of dietary saturated fat is derived from animals and animal products (like milk, butter, cheese, and lard).  Plants that have some amount of this type of fat include palm oil, cocoa butter, avocado, and coconut. These fats are called “saturated” because, in their chemical structure, all of the carbon atoms are matched with hydrogen atoms.  Saturated fats often appear solid at room temperature (think of butter vs. olive oil).  Consuming lots of saturated fat can increase your cholesterol, which puts you at an elevate risk for medical problems like stroke and cardiovascular disease.
  • Unsaturated Fats – There are two types of unsaturated fats: polyunsaturated and monounsaturated.  In terms of their respective chemical makeups, monounsaturated fats have one vacant carbon molecule (hence, “mono”) whereas polyunsaturated fats have more.  Both of these fats can actually have protective effects against certain conditions because they lower cholesterol.  They also often contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

Fat Generated During the Manufacturing Process

Trans fat is produced from unsaturated fats.  To make the latter more solid, companies will hydrogenate the atoms: that is, add another hydrogen atom to the vacant, “unsaturated” molecules.  The name “trans fatty acid” is primarily a consequence of the placement of the atoms: “trans” means “across from each other.”  Although some natural animal foods contain trace amounts of trans fat, most that is consumed in the American diet comes from processed foods.  Trans fats are believed to have an even more detrimental affect on cholesterol than are saturated fats.

Do I Need to Watch My Intake of Healthy Fats?

Yes.  Just because they are “good for you” does not mean you should eat large amounts of them.  To learn more about an ideal diet plan for your age, lifestyle, body type, and sex – including how much of your daily calorie consumption should come from fats – you can visit MyPyramid.gov.