The Fats of Life

By Debra Wein, MS, RDN, LDN, NSCA-CPT-D, CWPD, nationally recognized expert on health and wellness, founder of Sensible Nutrition and co-creator of Koko FitClub’s integrated nutrition program, Koko Fuel.

Despite what all of the flashy magazines, fad diets and news articles might suggest, current recommendations from the Institute of Medicine suggest you choose a diet containing 45-65% of your daily calories from carbohydrates, 10-35% from protein and 20-35% from fat. Less than 10% of your total daily calories should from saturated fat, less than 1% from trans fats and less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol.

Why is fat so important in the diet?

Fat provides a feeling of fullness as well as the calories, vitamins and nutrients that the body needs to survive. The amount of fat you eat is important because fat matters — but calories count. If something is fat-free that does not necessarily mean that it has any fewer calories than regular fat foods. Fat-free does not mean that you can eat unlimited amounts of the food. Any extra calories in your diet will cause weight gain, so if you are trying to maintain your weight; your calorie intake needs to equal the calories expenditure.

Saturated Fat

Fats are categorized into two types, saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fats are the most unhealthful and are associated with increased levels of cholesterol. Saturated fats are what we call solid fats, meaning they are solid at room temperature. They are usually from animal sources such as meat, butter and cheese. Some vegetarian sources of saturated fat are coconut and palm kernel. Consuming a diet high in saturated fat will increase your LDL or “bad” cholesterol and also your risk for heart disease.

Trans Fat

Another type of unhealthy fat is called trans fat. Trans fat is a type of unsaturated fatty acid that is similar in shape to a saturated fatty acid. It naturally occurs in dairy and beef. It is also produced when manufacturers hydrogenate or add hydrogen to an oil to make it more spreadable, solid or more shelf-stable. Items like stick varieties of margarine, baked goods, commercially prepared foods and fast foods contain up to 50% of their fat from trans fat. Eating high amounts of trans fat can raise your LDL cholesterol and decrease you HDL or “good” cholesterol. It also produces inflammation and may increase your risk for heart disease. Foods high in trans fat include:

Whole fat dairy products
Bake goods and fast foods
Vegetable shortening
Stick margarine
Animal products

Cholesterol is an important substance which can be made by our bodies and is not an “essential” nutrient. It is present in foods of animal origin only, meaning there is no cholesterol in plants. Cholesterol forms the major parts of plaques that narrow arteries in atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is the narrowing of arteries and is the underlying cause of strokes and heart attacks. The National Cholesterol Education Program advises for a consumption of 300 milligrams or less of cholesterol per day. Cutting back on meat and animal products is a good way to decrease your intake of cholesterol and saturated fats. It is important to know that foods high in saturated fat and trans fat raise cholesterol more so than food cholesterol does.

3 oz of top sirloin steak trimmed to ¼” fat = 84 mg of cholesterol
3 oz of light turkey meat = 51 mg of cholesterol
1 cup beans = 0 mg of cholesterol
1 cup whole milk = 24 mg of cholesterol
Good Fats

Fat-free foods have become so popular, but a diet too low in fat is unhealthy. Monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids are “good” fats and can help to promote a healthy heart. Monounsaturated fats contain one unsaturated bond while polyunsaturated fats contain more than one unsaturated bond. These fats help increase the HDL or “good” cholesterol and lower the LDL cholesterol in our blood.

Essential Fats

There are two polyunsaturated fats that are considered essential in the diet, Linoleic Acid and Linolenic Acid. These are fats that cannot be synthesized by our body and so we must get them from the food we eat. They are used to make Eicosanoids that help regulate many bodily functions. Linoleic acid is an omega 6 fatty acid and it should make up 5-10% of your total calories. That would be approximately 17 grams per day for men and 12 grams per day for women. It is found in food such as:

Leafy vegetables
Seeds and Nuts
Vegetable Oils (corn, cottonseed, safflower, sunflower, sesame, soybeans)
Poultry Fat
Linolenic acid is an omega 3 fatty acid and should make up 0.6-1.2% of your total calories. Men should consume about 1.6 grams per day and women 1.1 grams per day. It is found in foods such as:

Oils (canola, flaxseed, soybean, walnut, wheat germ)
Nuts (walnuts, butternuts)
Seeds (flaxseed, soybeans)
Excessive amounts of either omega 3 or omega 6 fatty acids can interfere with normal functions that depend on a proper balance between the two.

Quick Tips

Choose low-fat foods whenever possible
Read food labels to check for what types of fat are present in the foods you are eating
Substitute healthful for unhealthful fats when cooking
Quick Facts

A 4 oz fast food hamburger contains 23 grams of protein (98 calories) and 20 grams of fat (180 calories), about 10 g of saturated fat
Nonfat milk has 0 grams of fat and is a 90 calories per 8 oz serving
Whole fat milk has 8 grams of fat (5g of saturated fat) and 150 calories per 8 oz serving
A small croissant contains 12g of fat (7g of saturated fat) and 260 calories
1 measure tablespoon of fat provides 10 grams of fat or about 120 calories
Low-fat means less than 3 grams of fat per 100 gram serving
Reduced fat means that the product contains 25% less fat than the original product
Cheeses are the single greatest contributor of saturated fat in the diet.
The Bottom Line

Choose unsaturated fats when cooking.
Limit trans fat intake to less than 1% of your total caloric intake.
Limit saturated fat intake to less than 7% of your daily calories.


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