Does Eating Fat Make You Fat?
Fats do far more than make pizza, fries, and ice cream so tasty. Dietary fats are an essential part of a healthy, well-balanced diet.
You heard that right. But not all fats are created equal. Some types of fats contribute to obesity, high cholesterol, heart disease, and your risk of certain cancers. Other types of dietary fat support heart health. All types of dietary fat are calorie-dense, so they help fuel your brain and body with energy.
The key is to reduce the bad fats in your diet and enjoy healthy fats in moderation.
Why does your body require some dietary fat?
Dietary fats help your body:
- have energy
- support cell function
- protect organs
- stay warm
- absorb some nutrients
- produce hormones
Why are some fats bad for you?
Just imagine solid fats, like butter and vegetable shortening, making their way through your body. These types of dietary fat are trans and saturated fats that can clog your arteries and raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. Higher LDL numbers are associated with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. Trans fats can also decrease your HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels, contributing to cardiovascular risk.
All types of fat provide nine calories per gram, which is more than double the number of calories from protein or carbohydrates. No matter where your calories come from, consuming more than you burn can lead to weight gain.
What are trans fats?
Trans fats are found in some animal products (full-fat dairy, red meat, pork, and lamb), partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, and stick margarine. Hydrogenated oils are often hidden in doughnuts, cakes, pie crusts, biscuits, frozen pizzas, cookies, and crackers. Chicken and eggs do not contain trans fats.
What are saturated fats?
Saturated fats are found in tropical oils (coconut and palm/palm kernel oils), beef, pork, chicken and poultry skin, butter, full-fat dairy (like cheese, cream, and ice cream), and eggs.
While saturated fats can help raise your HDL cholesterol levels, this may not outweigh their impact on elevating your LDL levels.
How much fat is too much?
The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated and trans fats to five to six percent of your total daily calories. That means if you consume 2,000 calories daily to maintain a healthy weight, your daily diet should include no more than 13 grams of these fats. Those who follow ketogenic diets often consume way more than this amount.
What are healthy fats?
To maintain a healthy weight while supporting cardiovascular health, opt for monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in moderation.
Unlike trans and saturated fats, these heart-smart fats can help lower bad cholesterol and raise good cholesterol levels. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats can also help maintain your body’s cells and bolster your diet with vitamin E, an antioxidant.
Polyunsaturated fats are also a great source of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Because the body can’t create these “essential fats,” which are needed for certain bodily functions, we get them from whole foods and supplements.
This type of fat is found in liquid plant oils (such as olive, canola, peanut, safflower, avocado, and sesame oils), avocados, peanut butter, nuts, seeds, and fish (including tuna, pollock, and herring).
Polyunsaturated fats are found in liquid plant oils (soybean, corn, and sunflower oils), walnuts, sunflower seeds, tofu, soybeans, and fish (such as salmon, tuna, trout, mackerel, sardines, and herring).
Can you have your cake and eat it, too?
A healthy diet is all about balance. You don’t have to cut out every indulgence to maintain a normal weight and support your heart health. Replace trans and saturated fats with poly- and mono-unsaturated fats. Offset your caloric intake with daily physical activity, and cut back on added sugars to limit empty calories lacking nutritional value.
Written by Dana Kantrowitz, a contributor for UHealth’s news service. Medically reviewed by Michelle Pearlman, M.D., a gastroenterologist.