What are Healthy Fats?

What are Healthy Fats?

Perhaps you grew up hearing that fat was the worst type of food that you could eat. Mom told you it would make you fat. Dad told you it would clog your arteries. Your coaches claimed you would gain weight from eating fat and thereby lose speed, strength, agility etc.

I hate to break it to you, but eating high quality, plant-based fat in moderation will actually allow you to experience the exact opposite of what you’ve always been told.

But what are healthy fats you ask? In today’s post, we will review the importance of consuming good quality fat, provide examples of healthy fats and of course, teach you how to calculate your needs and then implement this lovely macronutrient into your daily routine!

But, I Always Thought Eating Fat Would Make Me Fat!?

For those of you old enough to remember, we once had a major “low-fat/no fat” craze that swept our nation. It seemed to have hit its peak in the 1990s. Anything that you wanted to eat could be found in a low fat or no fat version.

Cookies, chips, ice-cream, margarine, nut butters, salad dressings etc. It was wild! People were buying these items off the shelves left and right. However, many ended up with foul smelling gas, stomach cramps, and even anal leakage. But hey, at least it was low-fat!

Olestra anyone?

Sadly, we based this desire to create fat-free products on one flawed research study. Almost three decades later, we are finally realizing this low-fat epidemic caused so much more harm to human health than good.

O.K., let’s just think about this on a very basic level. You don’t have to be a science buff to put the pieces together.

Olive oil or really any oil in general consists almost entirely of naturally occurring fat, right? It is found in nature that way! So you should be very leery when you see a “low fat” or even worse, “no fat” salad dressing on the shelf.

Another great example: peanuts are almost entirely comprised of naturally occurring fat. Therefore, it should be a red flag when you see a jar of low-fat peanut butter. This means the manufacturer extracted the naturally occurring fat out of these products and in order to keep a similar taste and texture, they added more sugar, chemicals and or preservatives. Both of which lead to inflammation in our body.

Moral of the story? Fat does not make you fat. FAKE makes you fat!

Why is Fat So important?

Let’s review a few of the top reasons why eating healthy fat is so critical to human health.
  1. Eating quality fat helps you better absorb certain nutrients, specifically vitamins ADE and K!
  2. Insulation! It keeps you warm.
  3. Helps your body control blood sugar after a meal ( blood sugar control is one of the biggest keys to weight loss and sustained energy throughout the day.
  4. Serves as a back up fuel source when the body is running low on other macronutrients, mainly carbohydrate.
  5. Allows our heart, brain and nerves to function properly.
  6. Helps our body make and regulate hormones.

O.K. So then What are Healthy Fats, Exactly?

As you’ve probably come to realize, there are many different forms of fat to choose from on this Earth. Some derived from plants, some from animals. Some can be enjoyed somewhat freely and other forms should really never be consumed.

Let’s start from best to worst.

Unsaturated fat

This form of fat should be one of your closest friends.  Unsaturated fat comes mostly from nuts and seeds and is best known as mono and poly-unsaturated fats. The best way to consume this form of fat is in its freshest form (nuts and seeds) or cold pressed (oils).

When buying oil, it is best to choose a product that is bottled in glass vs. plastic. Also, the expiration date should not be months and months beyond the current date.

Oils such as canola, corn, vegetable, and sunflower oil may have the word “Heart Healthy” slapped across the front of the label, but don’t be fooled.  These crops are usually heavily sprayed and genetically modified before becoming an oil. Not to mention these oils are typically not available in an unrefined, cold pressed form.

Saturated Fat

Think of saturated fat as a good acquaintance. You definitely want to see this fat on occasion, but not all day every day.

Saturated fat is actually critical for human health. It forms a large part of every cell membrane in our body. Sources include but are not limited to grass-fed butter, ghee, coconut oil, dairy, and grass-fed beef.

So, why all the fuss in the media about inflammation and artery clogging?

Saturated fat only becomes a problem if the ratio of saturated to unsaturated fat is thrown out of whack. Ideally, we want to consume more unsaturated fats vs. saturated in order to decrease our chances of becoming inflamed. After all, inflammation may start as subtle signs such as fatigue and swelling, but when gone undetected year after year, this inflammation may manifest itself into something much more serious such as an autoimmune condition, Type 2 Diabetes, or heart disease.

Trans Fat

Say hello to one of your worst food enemies in this life. Trans fat is man-made. It comes from heating and pressurizing unsaturated fats in a way that causes them to solidify and become shelf stable. Essentially, the process turns unsaturated fat into the most toxic form of saturated. If this fat was meant to keep packaged food fresh for months and sometimes even years, can you imagine what it is doing to your insides?!

When you are reading the back of a food label, steer clear of the term “partially hydrogenated oil”. That is the fancy term for trans fat. It is most commonly found in packaged foods such as cookies, crackers, and salad dressings.

How Do I Calculate the Amount of Fat I Need Each Day?

While I am not one for calorie counting as a calorie does not exactly equal a calorie, I do find it helpful in the case of calculating your need for dietary fat.

OK here we go:

Step 1: Calculate your overall calorie needs using the Mifflin St. Jeor Equation. Be sure to include your level of activity into the calculation. Scroll down to find the answer and choose the number the best suits you-Weight Maintenance or Fat Loss. If you are hoping to gain weight, add 500-700 calories to the Weight Maintenance option.

Step 2: Scroll back to my posts on calculating your protein needs as well as calculating your carbohydrate needs. Once you have an answer for both, please write it down.

Step 3: Take the amount of protein you calculated, in grams, and multiply it x4 because there are approximately 4 calories per gram of protein.

x grams of protein x 4= calories from protein

Next, take the amount of carbohydrate you calculated, in grams, and multiply it x 4 because there are roughly 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate.

x grams of carbohydrate x 4= calories from carbohydrate

Step 4: Take the number of total calories you calculated for yourself using the Mifflin St. Jeor equation and subtract your total calories from protein as well as your total calories from carbohydrate.

This final number gives you the total number of fat calories you need each day. Divide this number by 9 because there are 9 calories per gram of fat and now you have the grams of fat that you should be consuming each day!

Let’s run through an example so that this makes a little more sense.

Let’s say I calculated 2,500 calories for myself.

I know from previous calculations that I need 75g protein/day.

75 x4 = 300 calories/day from protein

I know from previous calculations that I need approximately 400g of carbohydrate each day.

400 x 4 = 1600 calories/day from carbohydrate

2,500 – 300 – 1600 = 600 calories/day from fat.

Divide by 9 = about 65g fat/day.

Best Sources of Healthy Fat

Plant Based

Avocados/Avocado Oil/Guacamole
Olive Oil/Olives
Coconut Oil/Coconut Butter/ Canned Coconut Milk
MCT Oil
Cocoa Butter
Cold Pressed Nut and Seed Oils
Nuts and Nut Butters: Peanut, Cashew, Almond, Pistachio, Macadamia, Hazelnut, Pecan
Seeds: Flaxseed, Chia, Pumpkin, Sunflower, Sesame, Hemp

Seed Butters: Tahini, Sunflower Seed Butter, Pumpkin Seed Butter

Animal Based

Salmon
Sardines
Grass Fed Butter
Ghee

Pro Tip  #1: There is approximately 14g fat in a tablespoon (TBSP) of oil, seeds, nut butter etc. Take the number of fat grams that you calculated for yourself and divide by 14 to figure out how many TBSP you would need each day. For some athletes, this is much more convenient than trying to calculate every little gram of fat from each label throughout the day.

Pro Tip #2: Many female athletes who experience a hormonal imbalance and suddenly stop menstruating can often start menstruating again within a 2-3 month period. How? They must begin to increase overall calorie intake by means of focusing on reaching daily dietary fat goals. The key is staying consistent.

Pro Tip #3: Diabetic athletes may have an easier time controlling blood sugar when they focus on incorporating quality plant-based fat into each meal vs. focusing on carbohydrate counting alone.

Pro Tip #4: Incorporating healthy, plant-based fat into your daily routine will only aid in good health if the rest of your diet is full of fresh, whole food with minimal added sugar. If you are crushing that avocado and olive oil but you are also pounding pastries and cookies, we are in trouble.

Pro Tip #5: While fat is vital to human health, eating copious amount of fat throughout the day can be just as detrimental to your health as not eating enough fat. It’s important to keep in mind that many of us carry the genes that do not metabolize saturated fats very well. As a result, I say it is better to be safe than sorry and to try your best to consume roughly 10% of your daily fat calories from saturated fats (think fats that are solid at room temp: coconut oil, butter, lard etc).

If you are on a specialized diet such as the Ketogenic approach where you are required to eat 60-70% of your calories from fat for the day, that is completely fine. But again, try to keep your saturated fat intake to ~10-15% each day.

Best Ways to Incorporate Fat into Daily Routine

Alright, so now you know why fat is so beneficial to overall health and you are familiar with the best sources. Bravo!

Here are a few easy examples to start incorporating healthy fats into your daily regimen:

Breakfast
  • Melt a scoop of peanut butter into your oats while they’re hot. (Works great with overnight oats, too! Check out my recipe here)
  • Add a few fresh slices of avocado to your omelet
  • Add 1-2 TBSP of ground chia seeds or ground flaxseed to your smoothie
  • Cook your eggs in ghee
  • Add MCT oil to your morning tea or coffee
Snack
  • Dip your apple in almond butter, pear in cashew butter or banana in sunflower seed butter
  • Melt a few teaspoons of cacao butter into your hot chocolate for an extra rich flavor. Even easier than that? Enjoy a square of dark chocolate, 80% cacao or greater
  • Dip your fresh veggies in guacamole
  • Make energy bites with almond butter as the base. Here is an excellent recipe.
  • Make your own hummus, go a little heavy on the olive oil and use as a dip for veggies and crackers
  • Simply grab a handful of nuts or trail mix
  • Whip open a can of sardines and go wild (Relax, if you choose a great brand, they do not contain eyes and fuzz anymore but instead have a flavor like marinara or mustard!)
Lunch
  • Use olive oil ( with lemon, salt, pepper) instead of a packaged salad dressing
  • Order a taco bowl and ask for extra guac
  • Make a soup and use canned coconut milk as the base or thickening agent
  • Melt a few teaspoons of coconut oil over your sweet potato. Sprinkle with cinnamon for an extra anti-inflammatory kick.
Dinner
  • Enjoy a fresh piece of salmon over a bed of greens
  • Cook your protein of choice in avocado oil
  • Sautee your veggies in a few teaspoons of grass-fed butter
  • Have a Mediterranean night and make your own Tahini
  • Love Asian food? Almond butter and peanut butter make the best base for a homemade sauce that you can pour over veggies, meat, or your starch
Dessert
  • Use avocado as the base for mousse or pudding
  • Use cashew butter as the base for cookies vs. flour (These are bomb)
  • Use cocoa butter as the base for your fudge
  • Use a few TBSP of canned coconut milk to thicken your homemade shake
  • Use ghee or grass-fed butter in your favorite recipe instead of margarine
  • Use coconut oil in a recipe that requires refined vegetable oil

And there we have it my friends, the skinny on healthy fats! I hope you no longer have to wonder, “What are healthy fats?” and that you already have a spoon of nut butter in your mouth. Cheers!

Were you once a fat phobic? Did you find that it was easier to reach your health and performance goals once you started incorporating fat? What is your favorite way to chow down on this macro? Please comment below!

About The Author

Kylene Bogden

Kylene Bogden is one of the most well respected Functional Sports Dietitians in the United States. As a high school and collegiate sprinter, she experienced recurrent injury and fatigue. After years of constant struggle, she eventually learned that an abundance of processed foods and poor fueling strategies were the root of her performance issues. Kylene's personal journey as an athlete fueled her passion for finding a more progressive approach to sports nutrition. Since then, she has helped thousands of individuals dramatically improve overall health and athletic performance by taking a whole food approach. To learn more about Kylene's story and how a functional nutrition approach can help you to achieve your goals, simply click on the contact us link in the upper right-hand corner today!

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