Yes, even if you’re trying to lose weight…
The key word is SOME.
I’m not going to go so far as to say something absurd. Like “you need to eat fat to lose fat,” but it certainly doesn’t work the other way either.
Just eating fat, doesn’t necessarily make you fat. It also won’t necessarily help you lose fat either.
It’s decidedly neutral beyond energy balance.
This is a big hurdle for many people who lived through 70’s, 80’s and 90’s to overcome.
In the 1970’s, a report to the US Surgeon General’s office indicated that red meat, and in particular ‘saturated fats’ were the cause of high cholesterol, atherosclerosis and consequently heart disease.
Throughout the the 1980’s and into the 90’s, the US Surgeon General’s office, the American Heart Association, and the US Department of Agriculture teamed up.
To target what they considered (at the time) to be the great nutritional problem: dietary fat — more specifically saturated fats…
The research it turned out was a little young. And the general public generalized saturated fat to mean all fat.
At that time we discovered that the plaques building up in our arteries were made up of fat (we know much more now, thankfully…).
There was also an epidemiological (the study of health and disease patterns) indication that certain countries with diets high in animal fat also had a higher incidence of heart disease.
We had to blame something right?
Well despite eating less saturated fat and cholesterol, obesity continued to rise.
PROVIDED THE “DOSAGE” IS APPROPRIATE
^^^Key word: Dosage^^^
I’m not saying you can go buck wild and eat all the damn butter or cheese in your house whenever you want.
There is good cause for reducing your saturated fat intake overall (~≤9% of dietary intake).
It does lower disease risk, lowers LDL cholesterol, lower triglycerides, etc…etc… according to a bunch of randomized trials.
Many people still eat too much of it. Those things are associated with mortality even if we don’t have crystal clear associations.
I’m just saying it’s probably OK to lighten up a bit on this whole fat thing if you’re presently healthy. i.e. not on a doctor prescribed kind of health medication.
Without giving a history lesson, somehow fat in general got lumped into this saturated fat is bad idea. And you saw the emergence of ‘fat-free’ everything!
We merely increased our simple sugar intake so we could find a way to get a satisfactory taste without the fat.
Not a great strategy overall…
As anyone with good taste knows, fat adds flavour. You can’t take a specifically reductionist point of view on something that is decidedly inter-related and expect the outcomes to be amazing.
However, I worry equally now, that people are pushing ‘high-fat’ or ‘low-carb’ just as much as we used to push low fat.
If history is any indication the solution is really about eating the right amount of fat. It’s not good or bad on it’s own, it’s neutral.
Why You Need It
The reason we can’t just demonize all fat (and even really saturated fat) is because to some degree your body does best on a little bit of all types.
That and you can’t really remove it all from your diet. With ease anyway. It also absolutely needs some essential polyunsaturated fats.
Your body can’t produce all the fat it needs for vital bodily processes, things like:
- The manufacture, maintenance and balance of hormones (and lipoproteins)
- Inflammation management
- Mood, behavior modification (Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil are often used to treat depression)
- Cell membrane formation and reformation, cell signalling too
- Brain and nervous system functioning (the brain is mostly fat, so is your nervous system)
- The transportation and absorption of Fat Soluble vitamins (K, A, D, E)
So even if you’re trying to lose weight, you still need adequate fat intake to stay healthy in your pursuit.
The same could be said for any physical objective really, fat intake is important for health.
Being healthy allows you to train and do the things you need to do to get the result you seek.
Fat also slows gastric emptying, which slows food movement into the intestines from the stomach.
This increases satiation in the short-term the same way that protein and fiber do, often making you feel less hungry overall between meals.
Low fat diets for prolonged periods of time obviously make people hungrier because of this. However, high fat diets for prolonged periods of time may also negate this effect of feeling satisfied, so you might overeat.
Being the moderate that I aim, I typically recommend a moderate intake of fat. Here’s a recapped short version but I think you should read past this bit (even if this is a long article):
This works out to roughly ~25% of your total caloric intake. With no more than 7-9% of total diet (or roughly 1/3 of all fat intake) coming from saturated fat.
Emphasize polyunsaturated (particular Omega 3’s) and monounsaturated fats.
Avoid trans fat from refined sources entirely and pick lean animal/dairy sources to minimize naturally occurring trans-fats in the diet (<2g).
This works out to a total intake of roughly 0.4-0.5 g/lbs of body weight (0.9-1 g/kg) for most people.
Though this is one of the rare times when percentage based diet planning probably works best if you want to be overly specific.
For a 135 lbs woman this would be about 54-68 g a day total. Or more easily counted: 3-5 thumb sized servings a day (mentioned at the bottom of this article).
For a 180 lbs male this would be about 72-90 g a day total. Or more easily counted: 4-6 thumb sized servings a day (mentioned at the bottom of this article).
A serving is a lot less than your probably thought. Am I right?
There are three main types of fats that you consume:
Really it’s as simple as two. If you go by saturated fat and unsaturated fat. But they typically get subdivided into those three main types.
I’ll detail each below, but an essential fat is similar to an essential protein and I want to take a moment to discuss it. Polyunsaturated fats are the only ones are considered essential, specifically two fatty acids.
Your body can’t fully create the polyunsaturated Linoleic Acid (LA – an Omega-6 fatty acid) and Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA – an Omega-3), so you need to ingest them regularly.
They are the only fatty acids where inadequate intake is associated with nervous system disorders (parkinson’s, alzheimer’s, etc…) and most notably nutrient deficiency, but eventually death.
With that out of the way. It’s very hard in the context of a normal diet, not to get enough of them. Take a deep sigh of relief!
In fact research into this took a very long time to determine that we need these because lowering fat intake to the levels required to see a deficiency is basically crazy low. Nobody does it, even low-fat dieters.
You’d have to eat a diet regularly featuring next to zero fat intake. This just doesn’t really happen outside of hospitals or controlled research studies.
A mere 2% of total calories ingested or about 6 g for most people is enough to meet requirements based on that work. This however, probably isn’t optimal.
I prefer sticking to the Daily Reference Intakes (DRI).
The DRI for linoleic acid is about 12-17 grams and that fits inline with the rough averages I’ve already mentioned, depending on size.
A mere 0.5% of total calories or about 2 g fits in line with ALA needs. Though the DRI is 1.2-1.9 grams. The discrepancy is weird, I know…
There are other fatty acids that are often viewed in the literature as conditionally ‘essential.‘ Basically making them can be difficult under certain conditions. That’s beyond what I want to talk about here though.
The two above are ‘we-know-for-sure-so-far.’ They are musts.
You Can’t Only Eat Essential Nutrients
I want to be clear, just because something is ‘essential‘ doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t eat other types of fat. Or that other foods don’t matter. People often erroneously make this leap.
Carbohydrates aren’t essential therefore you shouldn’t eat them. This is a logical leap and it’s complete nonsense in the grand scheme of things. Don’t jump to that conclusion with fats either.
Other fats have various other benefits, even if not considered ‘essential.’
For starters, in addition to essential nutrients, you also need enough energy (i.e. calories) to support life.
Here is another example; DHA (another omega-3 fatty acid found to a great degree in certain fish) is often used to treat mood problems like depression.
That’s because ALA is basically a precursor to DHA in the body. ALA is the essential one but it’s really more important because it’s a minimum requirement for conversion into the also fairly important DHA.
The process of converting ALA to EPA/DHA is very inefficient within the human body.
Meaning you need to consume considerably more ALA to get a enough of the appropriate conversion.
Ultimately you might be better off focusing on DHA/EPA intake rather than ALA in many cases, despite ALA being consider the essential one.
That’s why people take and often recommend fish oil, algae oil, or eating fish/shellfish/algae regularly. It beats eating multiple tablespoons of flax oil every day.
Many other types of food contain these ‘healthier fats’ too. Nuts, seeds, whole grains, etc…etc…
Though fat as an entirety is not ‘essential,’ low amounts of total (potentially more specifically saturated fat) intake can lead to decreased testosterone and poor cholesterol management (believe it or not).
On the other hand, too much, has a correlation with some of the not-so-great-stuff I mentioned earlier.
A huge imbalance of Omega-6 (ω−6) to Omega-3 (ω−3) might be associated with health risks.
I don’t want to sound alarmist, I believe there to be an easy fix; Reduce your refined vegetable (I mean grain…) oil intake. As one might reduce your added sugar intake.
Particularly I encourage my clients to reduce heavily ‘refined’ versions that are made into oils using high heats. Especially commercially available deep fried foods.
Today’s average person living in the western world has an intake level potentially higher than 20:1, of ω−6 to ω−3.
Research indicates that the healthier ratio is less than or equal to about 4:1. This is my main reason for cooking less with common vegetable oils like canola, grapeseed, corn, soy, vegetable shortening, etc…
I know I know, these oils come from plants, they must be totally benign! It’s a similar erroneous correlation we draw to vegetables automatically being “healthier’ than animal counterparts.
Sure we should eat more vegetables than we do. That doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t get any benefits from eating animal based foods (if that’s your jam). Too much fat from plant sources can also be problematic.
Don’t get me wrong, many plant based fats are an improvement over too much saturated fat intake, but anything can still be overdone.
You can see the balancing act we must struggle with!
There are still rare instances where the smoke point of such oils is beneficial for certain styles of cooking. I’m not saying entirely eliminate, I’m saying reduce.
Another equally viable solution could be said for merely increasing your ω−3 intake by eating more fatty fish, eating some nuts/flax/chia/etc…, eating ω−3 fortified foods and possibly taking a ω−3 supplement.
My recommendations shouldn’t be shocking. It’s not like your high omega-6 fatty acid intake is slowly killing you or anything. It’s just an observation and there is some literature to support that view.
I make the fairly casual recommendation that people don’t actively seek to increase their omega-6 intake. Merely try to choose other oils for medium heat cooking, like olive, macadamia, avocado, coconut or ghee/butter.
Look for less refined vegetable oils where possible like virgin peanut, just make sure you store it in the fridge. Refined versions keep longer, that’s why people like them.
Perhaps more importantly, increase your omega-3 intake to displace the omega-6 component a bit.
Worrying about the specific ratios seems incredibly neurotic based on what we know. You also all know how I feel about restrictive eating behaviors.
Rarely In Isolation
One more important thing I want to mention before we jump into the meat of this…(pun intended…)
Rarely do any of the main three types of fat show up independent of other types.
In the following discussion it’s easy to really label foods by what appears to be the dominant type of fat. Below you may read me make generalizations like a serving of beef is a serving of saturated fat, or fatty fish is polyunsaturated fat.
They are not wholly accurate statements all the time. These are just generalizations that make things easy for you to get a variety of fat in your diet.
People often don’t realize that just because a fat is solid at room temperature doesn’t mean it is entirely made up of saturated fat.
Just because a fat is liquid at room temperature doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain saturated fat either.
That’s a really easy association to make for simplicity sake but it works differently in the real world:
- Lard (Pork Fat) is usually only about 38-43% saturated fat, which means 56-62% is unsaturated (most of that is monounsaturated)
- Tallow (Beef Fat) is also about 42% saturated fat, and about 56% unsaturated with most of that being monounsaturated
- Chicken fat is still about 30% saturated fat, and then 70% unsaturated (again most monounsaturated)
- Egg yolks are about 40% saturated fat, and 60% unsaturated
- Whole Milk is about 56% saturated fat, and 44% unsaturated (keep in mind still only 3.25% fat by volume, see my article on dairy)
- Olive oil is usually ≥85% unsaturated fat but is still about 13-15% saturated (most plant-based oils have between 6-16% saturated fat except coconut/palm derived oils)
- Red Palm Oil is about 50% saturated fat and 50% unsaturated fat
- Coconut Oil is about 92% saturated fat and 8% unsaturated fat (more than most animal fats! even if 50% of this is MCT’s…)
Keep in mind that these are rough figures. Like all sources of food,these numbers are subject to slight variation based on yields, feed, soil conditions, weather, etc…
I’m only mentioning this because it’s easy to think that all animal fats are saturated and therefore ‘bad’ when in fact many of them aren’t even half saturated fat.
Likewise, other sources of fat we often think of as good, still contain saturated fats.
So while a cup of whole milk could be 22% of your saturated fat intake, at the same time it might only represent 12% of your recommended total fat intake. Aren’t numbers fun?
Something to keep in mind as you keep reading. I’m making it more simplistic sounding below than it actually is.
Trans Fat – The Bad Stuff
I lied, one more thing to get out of the way.
In a nutrition world where I commonly recommend people be flexible with their eating, this stands as a lone rigid restriction.
The one line I draw, kind of like smoking.
Unless you lived under a rock for the last 10 years, you’ve probably heard about trans fat.
New York City banned its usage in processed foods way back in 2007.
Switzerland and Denmark have also banned the current widespread use of the ingredient that makes saturated fat look like the favourite son.
Trans fats are made by the process of hydrogenation; Bombarding polyunsaturated fatty acids (oils high in Omega-6 fatty acid typically — discussed below) with hydrogen molecules until they become saturated with hydrogen.
They are called “trans” fats because after the process of hydrogenation, they essentially transmutate. Taking on a completely different molecular shape that resembles more of a saturated fat.
Ultimately we’re taking an unsaturated fat and making it behave like a saturated fat in cuisine.
They are a brilliant invention of this whole fat phobia war (sarcasm). In trying to come up with something that wasn’t saturated fat but still behaved like saturated fat in cooking, we effectively created something worse.
Good one human race!
Good thing we studied the effects. Trans fat are pretty much the only thing I will vehemently encourage you to not to eat. Ever, if you can help it.
Unfortunately the average person in North America eats about 10-15 g of the stuff every day. Yikes!
Most health organizations recommend that you eat no more than 2 g a day.
Check the labels on the food you eat folks!
Depending on where you are in the world, it’s possible that below a certain threshold (0.5 g for instance) can be labelled as zero grams. Even if 0g is listed you should look for words like:
- Partially Hydrogenated
- Modified <type of> oil
- Partially Modified <type of> oil
Are There Exceptions?
There is a relatively new discovery of naturally occurring trans fat.
These are found almost exclusively in meat and dairy products. They might not be as much of a health concern, though the jury is still out.
If you’re eating trans fat it’s probably ideal to skew towards these. Or at least accept that there are small amounts in lean cuts of steak and protein rich plain yogurt. I am sticking to the <2g recommendation here.
The research is young and not that definitive yet but it’s promising. This is likely a type of trans-fat can have a small place in your diet.
Really it’s processed packaged foods that are going to be blamed and frankly result in intakes north of 2g anyway.
Food Interactions & Saturated Fat
Before continuing I want to comment that I’m not giving you an excuse to go buckwild and have steak for dinner every day.
Dosage matters. It always matters.
Saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature and are found more abundantly in foods like butter, dairy, meat, eggs, coconut, and palm derived oils.
The associations discovered between saturated fat intake seem most relevant to people with early indications of cardiovascular disease. If that’s you, please listen to your doctor before you listen to me.
Going really low in saturated fat could help you with that pathology. I’m not a doctor nor a clinical dietician.
For the rest of us ‘healthy’ folks, the problems associated with saturated fat intake likely has less to do with ingesting saturated fats. And much more to do with the context in which they get eaten:
- In heavily refined foods like commercially made cookies, snacks, candy bars, etc… (These foods are also high in sugar and/or processed/refined carbohydrates)
- In deep fried foods, which increases the quantity found in a single serving (still a problem now, even if McDonald’s is using Canola or Peanut oil)
- With trans-fat (High saturated fat and trans-fat intake is a double whammy of ‘not that great for you’)
- The lack of vegetable intake that often accompanies it
- When unrefined unsaturated fat consumption is also disproportionate
Excessive body fat, negative blood lipid profiles, and genetics, are also related risk factors.
You’ll never completely remove saturated fat consumption from your diet.
Thus, I think the common recommendation to ‘completely avoid’ saturated fats, is not only misguided, but also potentially detrimental.
Having no saturated fat in your diet, can encourage people to avoid foods that have at least some benefit like red meat, dairy, coconut or eggs.
This could equally be problematic in the long run, especially considering it is damn near impossible to do in the first place.
To be clear, because it’s already often higher than it needs to be I’m not sure adding it purposefully would ever be necessary if you eat whole foods that feature a little bit regularly — i.e. red meat, eggs, dairy, etc…
If you need 6 servings a day and eat three meals that feature any of those foods, then you may only need 3 thumb-sized servings of extra fat to meet your needs.
What I mean to say, is that it rarely works to vilify a single nutrient (there are many kinds of saturated fatty acids…) to a point of entirely precluding otherwise good foods.
Reducing your intake ≠ removing it entirely.
Just in case: ≠ means ‘does not equal…’
Yes, having a diet lower in saturated fat is probably not a bad idea for a lot of people (people who have a high intake now).
At the same time, you don’t have to vilify butter, red meat, pork, coconut oil and other reasonable sources of saturated fat to obtain good outcomes either.
All the same, my rough recommendation is about 9% or less. If you’re into tracking that kind of thing. An easier way to keep track might be 1/3 of your fat sources. i.e. if you need 6 thumb-sized servings, 2 can be saturated fat in nature (remember they won’t be 100% saturated anyway).
I’d encourage you to favour getting it in your diet from whole unrefined sources the majority of the time — meat, coconuts, nuts, dairy, etc…
One Final Note:
Medium Chain Triglycerides
It’s trendy right now to talk about these. Hansel is so hot right now! I talked about them briefly five or six years ago (I’ve since updated my stance a little bit).
Fats from Red Palm (different from palm kernel oil), Coconuts and Coconut Oil (and to a lesser degree cocoa) are highly saturated.
Red palm oil is often claimed online to have a unique kind of saturated fat, called Medium-Chain Triglycerides or MCT’s for short. But it doesn’t really, maybe trace amounts of one of them (lauric acid).
Coconut oil on the other hand is about 48% lauric acid and some other MCT’s are along for the ride.
MCT’s have a unique property; They are broken down by the liver for direct energy usage. Bypassing the entire fat digestion procedure and yielding some potentially positive health benefits in it’s wake — namely being available for energy quickly and potentially not being stored as fat, or at least not as likely as other fats.
This is often why they are praised. However, in the world of nutrient partitioning though, they can still end up being stored as fat when intake is excessive, just as olive oil or anything else can.
Lauric acid isn’t completely broken down via the portal vein either (most of the MCT’s in coconut oil) but that’s more complicated than I want to discuss in detail.
MCT’s are also thought to be particularly satiating with some research suggesting that people tend to eat less during the day when they consume MCT’s.
Then again, so is most fat in the short-term. Fat slows gastric emptying like I mentioned above.
People also often confuse research into MCT’s with coconut oil or red palm oil. Coconut oil has a good amount of MCT’s in them but it’s not as much as MCT oil, so it’s difficult to draw comparisons.
MCT oil is itself a very specially produced type of oil that is often used in salad dressings (it is poor when heated).
Look, I cook with coconut oil and red-palm oil semi-regularly. I love the flavour/colour they impart on certain dishes (a thai curry just isn’t the same!) but I’m not prepared to throw them into the same category as olive oil.
It’s the same reason I use ghee if I’m cooking certain Indian cuisine or butter if I’m making certain French cuisine.
It’s more about flavour sometimes, than it is about nutrition for the sake of nutrition.
Food is more than just fuel in my eyes and I just get a little bored, if I always use olive oil, know-what-I-mean?
I recommend treating them like other sources of saturated fat. In the sense of being mindful of the rough quantities you’re eating, just not neurotic about it.
MCT, coconut, red palm, butter, ghee can all have a place but you might want to be more careful with them overall.
MCT’s might have a place in advanced eating strategies (a mere 5-10 g could be beneficial in this case, so long as it displaces other fats) but I generally don’t focus too much on them until a baseline or foundational diet is at least established.
Are liquid at room temperature and most commonly found in fish, shellfish, pastured meat, algae, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
It’s commonly believed that human beings evolved on diets consisting mostly of marine life, wild game and/or inland plants. This provided abundant omega-3 and other unprocessed fats.
Early humans (and many hunter-gatherer groups today) likely consumed all parts of the animal as well. This included fattier tissues like organs, blubber or brains, and the eggs from fish, fowl, and reptiles.
This is theorized to have resulted in an omega-6 (ω−6)/omega-3 (ω−3) ratio that was around 1:1. Who knows?
I know organ meat seems offal (get it?) but it’s probably better for you than most muscle meat from a nutrition standpoint.
As I indicated above the current Western diet exposes us to an overabundance of ω−6. Current research suggests that anything above 4:1 ratio could be detrimental to our health. The jury is still out.
Sure I could jump on the vilification train here but really I just want to point out…Balance is important.
In all likelihood, you are consuming too much processed food and refined ‘vegetable oil.’ Or you’re not eating enough ω−3’s.
Much of our current ω−6 and saturated fat intake comes from refined fat sources, not from the whole foods of old.
Items like refined corn oil, safflower oil, and feedlot farmed animal products increases potential for long-term imbalances of fat intake.
Soybean oil alone accounts for over 75% of oils consumed by Americans and is largely Omega-6…
Omega 6 vs Omega 3
I already mentioned much of this above so I’ll avoid repeating myself, too much.
My biggest concern here is getting enough Omega-3 and then (ideally) reducing refined sources of omega-6’s, which usually means added oils.
I’m of the mind that it’s best to focusing on increasing something to displace something else but here are few steps you might want to consider at home.
- If you are able, emphasize fish and shellfish as a regular part of your diet (and pastured meat where applicable)
- If not able, consider taking 1-3 g of fish oil, krill oil, algae oil (if you’re a plant-based eater or prefer it) most days of the week (or just take it anyway for insurance)
- Add flax and chia seeds to salads or other meals to get some ALA (1 TBSP = 1 Serving of fat anyway)
- Go through your pantry and eliminate most refined oils (stick with avocado, macadamia nut, or olive for moderate heat, then grapeseed or ghee for occasional high heat applications)
- Reduce your intake of deep fried foods from restaurants (believe me, it’s not olive oil they are using...)
- Reduce or displace packaged fried foods, pastries, cakes, muffins, etc… from your diet
You don’t have to be perfect, just making progress in any of these directions could be beneficial.
Liquid at room temperature and found in olives, macadamia, avocado in abundance, among other animal fats.
Though not considered essential, there is a reason everyone labels olive oil as a health food.
By the Way…
The reason it gets recommended so highly at this point, is that substantial research has identified a lot of health benefits.
At least when substituting monounsaturated fats in the diet for (in particular) saturated fat and maybe even polyunsaturated Omega-6’s.
Balance is still important. If nothing else, I hope your take-away from this article is: The problem with your fat consumption probably has more to do with an unbalanced intake, than anything else.
That being said, we do know is that Olive oil lowers LDL cholesterol and has associated benefit with some or more of the following:
- Lower blood pressure
- Lower incidence of certain cancers
- Reduced hypertension (elevated blood pressure)
- Reduced incidence of Type 2 diabetes
- Reductions in oxidative stress
- Lowers LDL (Low-Density Lipoprotein – the bad kind of cholesterol…)
Shifting your fat intake towards monounsaturated fats is generally a good idea; Provided it doesn’t become the only fat you ever consume, which would be difficult to do anyway.
All in all I think it’s a good idea to shift towards olives, avocado and macadamia nuts — and to a degree their oils.
Many other nuts/seeds feature a good amount (without the drawbacks of their oil versions) and some of the sources like fish or animal meat will have some as well.
I mentioned the specifics of that above.
Omega 7’s and Omega-9’s
These are a more recent nutritional discoveries (Omega-9’s are found as both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats).
Olives are high in Omega-9 (ω−9) while Macadamia Nuts are high in Omega-7’s (ω−7).
We still don’t know exactly what they independently contribute to a healthy diet right now. Judging from some of the evidence above, they need a place in the diet.
That’s why I like to use macadamia nut oil mixed in with my olive oil from time to time. Well for this reason and the fact that it’s buttery in flavour.
They effectively round up your ‘fat diet,’ and like anything else need to be somewhat controlled in your diet.
As always, we’re not giving you permission to eat olives and macadamia nuts by the kilogram. Keep your intake, within reason…
Summary and Recommendations
Fat is a tricky subject and wide variances from human to human are not uncommon. However, the typical baseline prescription is about 25% of total calorie intake.
This works out to daily intake of roughly 0.4-0.5 g/lbs of body weight (0.9-1 g/kg) for most people.
More if you’re not that active and you opt for a lower carb diet (upwards of 35% of diet). Perhaps slightly less if you are active (~20%, maybe even ~15%) and consuming more carbs by percentage.
Percentages are tough to work with for this reason. I generally prefer specifics like g/lbs or g/kg. Even better, I prefer servings and keeping things simple. What it comes down to is this:
Consume foods rich in healthy fats daily.
Healthy fats means prioritizing a little polyunsaturated Linoleic Acid (LA – an Omega-6 fatty acid) and Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA – an Omega-3).
Prioritize the omega-3’s whenever possible, or at least make sure you get a few grams daily or near-daily.
Keep in mind that ALA converts to DHA (poorly anyway), so fish, shellfish, pastured meat/eggs, are good, if not, better options.
You only need a couple of grams a day, so supplementation might be the right path for you if those foods aren’t regulars in your diet.
Likewise, it’s really easy to get linoleic acid in the western diet so it’s not a major concern. LA is in chicken, whole grains, potatoes, corn, eggs and most nuts/seeds.
Unless your food intake is way out of whack, that should be easy. One or two servings of one of those a day should be enough to get what you need to get.
Followed by monounsaturated fat intake. Monounsaturated fat should probably displace some saturated fat (maybe some omega 6, if omega 3 intake is low).
Consider reducing your exposure to omega-6 fatty acids by reducing refined plant-based oils in the diet.
Save that intake for the few times you need/want a high heat cooking oil like grapeseed oil, or you just want to treat yourself.
Then keep an eye on saturated fat intake. I wouldn’t go out of your way to actively add saturated fat, even if putting butter and MCT oil in coffee is stupidly trendy these days.
It’s not inherently bad for you, but you can still over do it more easily than other foods if you’re not that active, especially liquid calories.
Generally speaking, you can, and should split your intake fairly evenly amongst all three major types of fat. A little less saturated and maybe a little less ω−6, with a little more ω−3.
Fat is fairly easy to get in the omnivorous human diet without actively looking for it. It’s in all the meat and animal products you already eat.
Oils are used to cook most foods at home or to prevent sticking. Most nuts/seeds feature plenty of good fats. Even vegetables, legumes and whole grains have some fat to a much lesser degree.
Lastly, I’d avoid deep fried food as much as possible (even if it’s cooked in ‘vegetable’ oil and ‘delicious’). Avoid human-made trans-fat altogether.
As far as the rest of your diet is concerned; There are no naturally occurring fats that you should always avoid. Provided you take a balanced approach to your fat intake. Total intake is what really matters.
You could think about including some whole nuts, seeds (hemp, flax, and chia are especially nutritious sources of fat), fish, seaweed, pasture-raised/grass-fed animals/eggs, olives, avocado, macadamia, coconut, and cacao nibs in your diet.
Keep in mind that fats are really easy to over consume.
They provide nearly double the energy of other macronutrients and are more easily absorbed/broken down by your body. 9 kcal per 1 gram vs 4 kcal per 1 gram of protein/carbohydrate.
Most people are eating more than they think they are already. This is what I use with clients to dictate a serving of fat (thumb to the knuckle closest to the hand):
That’s roughly a TBSP or 15ml or a ‘serving.’
Getting back to real world examples from the beginning of this essay…
For a 135 lbs woman a moderate total fat intake might be about 3-5 thumb sized servings a day using the skill based eating method.
For a 180 lbs male a moderate intake would be about 4-6 thumb sized servings a day using the skill based eating method.
The important thing to keep in mind is that I’m often considering ‘added’ fats here and that I’m talking about overly specific minimums.
Fat is something that sneaks it’s way into all of our diets, so it’s wise to give yourself a buffer of 1-2 servings that would naturally occur in your eggs, meats, dairy, etc… already.
If you’re not making progress where you’d like, this is definitely a variable that could be shifted up or down.
It can often overlap with protein intake in this way. You may have to adjust downward or upward from those examples above depending on your objectives and carbohydrate intake.
Also published on Medium.