What are fats in nutrition?

5 expert takeaways that break it all down

By Pam Nisevich Bede, MS, RD, CSSD, LD
ZonePerfect Nutritionist

December 2019

1 Functional fat

Satiating and nourishing fats should have a presence in your diet, whatever your specific health or wellness goals may be. Dietary fat plays many roles in the body, the first being as an energy source to help meet daily demands. Fat is unique in that when carbs aren’t available (like during times of ketosis or very low-calorie intake or because of specific disease states), fat is a dense source of energy. Fat stores help to maintain a consistent body temperature and like it or not, our padding is perfectly designed to offer protection for internal organs.

Functional fat
2 Nourishing fat

Foods rich in fat are often the best sources of fat-soluble Vitamins A, D, E, and K. But whether a food is rich in these vitamins or not, research shows that dietary fat intake within the same meal allows for improved absorption of essential fat-soluble vitamins. And these nutrients are indispensable to optimal health, wellness, and even performance.

Nourishing fat
3 The type of fat matters

We classify fats according to their chemical structure. The type of chemical bonds- saturated and unsaturated – matters as does the length of the structure such as long-chain fatty acids (most commonly found in foods) and medium-chain triglycerides (not as common but still available). While fats from unsaturated sources can work to improve your cholesterol and heart health, trans fats can impact your cholesterol, decreasing your HDL while increasing your LDL. Bad stuff. The full impact of saturated fats in the diet is still being mapped out but these solid fats have been shown to increase total cholesterol levels and may have the potential to negatively impact heart health.

type of fat matters
4 The source of fat matters too

Carnivores take heed; research shows us that overall health can benefit from more plant sources of fats and oils and fewer animal fats. This is primarily related to plants offering a blend of more unsaturated fats and fewer saturated fats (along with the other benefits plants impart). What does this mean for you? Fill your plate with less bacon and more nuts, seeds, avocados, olives oils, and even coconut oil. (Coconut oil is a versatile fat that is rich in medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) but is high in saturated fat, which is one of the reasons why it is solid at room temperature.)

The source of fat
5 How much do you need?

If you’re going keto, you need most all (75%!) of your daily calories to come from fats and oils. If you’re going low-carb, 40/30/30, or following a generally balanced diet, aim for an intake somewhere around 20–35 percent of your daily calories. Research suggests that failing to consume the bare minimum of fat can lead to illness, performance-related injury, and nutrient deficiencies. In other words, unless you have a specific medical condition and your doctor has advised you otherwise, there’s no performance benefit to a low-fat diet (<15 percent of total energy intake). And even though fat can pack a calorie punch, it packs a lot of nutritional benefits in each gram too.

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