Fat as a Nutrient

Fat is an essential nutrient, because our bodies require small amounts of several fatty acids from foods (the so-called essential fatty acids) to build cell membranes and to make several indispensable hormones, namely, the steroid hormones testosterone, progesterone, and estrogen, and the hormone-like prostaglandins.

Dietary fats also permit one group of vitamins, the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), to be absorbed from foods during the process of digestion. Fats help these vitamins to be transported through the blood to their destinations. The fat in our bodies also provides protective insulation and shock absorption for vital organs.

As a macronutrient, fat is a source of energy (calories). The fat in food supplies about 9 calories per gram, more than twice the number of calories as the same amount of protein or carbohydrate.

As a result, high-fat foods are considered “calorie-dense” energy sources. Any dietary fat that is not used by the body for energy is stored in fat cells (adipocytes), the constituents of fat (adipose) tissue.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that no more than 30 percent of our calories should come from fat, and only a third of that should be saturated fat.

Our health is influenced by both the amount and the type of fat that we eat. Fats are molecules; they are classified according to the chemical structures of their component parts. But you don’t need to be a chemist to understand the connection between the various fats in foods and the effect these fats have on the risk for disease.

Some definitions will help. Dietary fats, or triglycerides, are the fats in foods. They are molecules made of fatty acids (chain-like molecules of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen) linked in groups of three to a backbone called glycerol. When we eat foods that contain fat, the fatty acids are separated from their glycerol backbone during the process of digestion.

Fatty acids are either saturated or unsaturated, terms that refer to the relative number of hydrogen atoms attached to a carbon chain. Fat in the foods that we eat is made up of mixtures of fatty acids—some fats may be mostly unsaturated, whereas others are mostly saturated.

Monounsaturated fatty acids are fatty acids that lack one pair of hydrogen atoms on their carbon chain. Foods rich in monounsaturated fatty acids include canola, nut, and olive oils; they are liquid at room temperature.

A diet that provides the primary source of fat as monounsaturated fat (frequently in the form of olive oil) and includes only small amounts of animal products has been linked to a lower risk of coronary artery disease. This type of diet is commonly eaten by people who live in the region surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids lack two or more pairs of hydrogen atoms on their carbon chain. Safflower, sunflower, sesame, corn, and soybean oil are among the sources of polyunsaturated fats (which are also liquid at room temperature). The essential fatty acids, linoleic and linolenic acid, are polyunsaturated fats.

Like monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats lower blood cholesterol levels and are an acceptable substitute for saturated fats in the diet. Saturated fatty acids, or saturated fats, consist of fatty acids that are “saturated” with hydrogen.

These fats are found primarily in foods of animal origin—meat, poultry, dairy products, and eggs—and in coconut, palm, and palm kernel oil (often called “tropical oils”). Foods that are high in saturated fats are firm at room temperature.

Because a high intake of saturated fats increases your risk of coronary artery disease, nutrition experts recommend that less than 10 percent of your calories should come from saturated fats.

Omega-3 fatty acids are a class of polyunsaturated fatty acids found in fish (tuna, mackerel, and salmon, in particular) and some plant oils such as canola (rapeseed) oil. These fatty acids have made the news because of the observation that people who frequently eat fish appear to be at lower risk for coronary artery disease.

Omega-3 fatty acids also seem to play a role in your ability to fight infection. Hydrogenated fats are the result of a process in which unsaturated fats are treated to make them solid and more stable at room temperature. The hydrogenation process, which involves the addition of hydrogen atoms, actually results in a saturated fat.

Trans-fatty acids are created by hydrogenation. An increase in consumption of these fats is a concern because they have been associated with an increased risk of coronary artery disease. Hydrogenated fat is a common ingredient in stick and tub margarine, commercial baked goods, snack foods, and other processed foods.

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that is a necessary constituent of cell membranes and serves as a precursor for bile acids (essential for digestion), vitamin D, and an important group of hormones (the steroid hormones). Our livers can make virtually all of the cholesterol needed for these essential functions.

Dietary cholesterol is found only in foods of animal origin, that is, meat, poultry, milk, butter, cheese, and eggs. Foods of plant origin, that is, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, grains, and the oils derived from them, do not contain cholesterol.

Eggs are the food most often associated with cholesterol, because the average large egg contains about 210 milligrams of cholesterol (only in the yolk), and the recommended daily cholesterol intake is 300 mg or less.

However, for most people, meat contributes a higher proportion of cholesterol to the diet than do eggs, because cholesterol is found in both the lean and fat portions of meat. Shellfish have acquired an undeserved reputation for being high in cholesterol. Their cholesterol and total fat contents are actually comparatively low.

Dietary fat is a source of energy, but high-fat diets, especially diets high in saturated fat, increase the risk of gaining excessive amounts of weight and of developing diabetes, coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, and several types of cancer. This increased risk is the reason that health experts encourage us to reduce our intake of total and saturated fats by:

  • Increasing our intake of fruits, vegetables, and wholegrain foods, which are naturally low in fat, and preparing them with a minimum of added fats
  • Consuming low-fat dairy products such as nonfat milk and yogurt and reduced-fat cheeses
  • Limiting our intake of red meat, poultry, and fish to 5 to 7 ounces daily
  • Choosing lean cuts of red meat and poultry, removing the skin before eating poultry, and preparing the meat with a method that uses little or no additional fats
  • Choosing some fish that is high in omega-3 fatty acids and preparing it with little or no added fat