Although they often get a bad rap, fats are an essential nutrient in the body and can play many important roles when it comes to your health, well-being and your fitness results. Fats play a vital role in maintaining healthy skin, hair and insulating the body organs. They promote cellular function and are necessary for the proper absorption, transportation and function of the fat-soluble vitamins including A, D, E and K. The components of fats are necessary for cell membranes, as well as structures inside cells within the body. Fats also play a role in metabolism, and help maintain body temperature or homeostasis. And contrary to popular belief, consuming fat does not make you fat! In fact, ingesting fat can help switch your metabolism to burn fat as fuel, while helping preserve lean muscle tissue.
So what are the important fats? Here’s a rundown!
Unsaturated fats are considered the “good fats” and are needed as part of a healthy diet. Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. There are two types of unsaturated fats: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, both of which are considered essential fatty acids.
Essential Fatty Acids
Essential fatty acids or EFAs have a similar function and need like vitamins; however they are required in much larger doses. EFAs cannot be made by the body and therefore must be obtained from the diet. EFAs are necessary for growth, the integrity of cell membranes, and the synthesis of important hormone-like substances, which have important effects on the immune, inflammatory response, cardiovascular and central nervous system. EFAs are essentials for many of our body’s processes and they should not be overlooked as an important part of a diet program. Most sources of fat in your diet should come from the unsaturated EFAs, including polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) or monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) sources, while saturated fats should be limited to less than 10 percent of your calories.
The Top Ten Benefits of Essential Fats
• Help regulate oxygen uses and energy production
• Important in nerve, muscle and cellular functions
• Play a vital role in cognitive function, including memory and mood
• Involved in regulation of metabolism, body temperature, blood sugar and insulin control, thyroid function, carbohydrate metabolism and control over hormonal processes
• Lubricate joints and improve mineralization of bones
• Help transport cholesterol
• Improve digestion of the gut
• Build the immune system and regulate inflammatory response
• Can help direct the processes that stimulate fat breakdown and utilization
• Helps regulate blood pressure
Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) are produced by the body and are found in fats of both plant and animal origin. Animal sources of MUFAs are usually found along with saturated fatty acids and include beef, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, dairy products, eggs and some fish. Oleic acid can make up from 20 to 50 percent of the fats in these foods. Plant sources include olive, canola (rapeseed), and peanut oils as well as the foods from which these oils are extracted. Nuts also provide a significant source of MUFAs, including almonds, walnuts, avocados, pistachios and macadamia nuts. A significant intake of monounsaturated fats may improve blood cholesterol levels and have a positive effect on insulin levels, helping regulate blood sugar levels.
A polyunsaturated fatty acid or PUFA contains two or more connections along its chain where two carbon atoms are double bonded. Most liquid fats like vegetable and fish oils are polyunsaturated. This type of fat is found mostly in plant-based foods and oils. Evidence shows that eating foods rich in polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) may improve blood cholesterol levels and may help decrease risk of type 2 diabetes. Omega-3 fatty acid is one type of polyunsaturated fat. Omega-3 can be found in some types of fatty fish, and can help decrease the risk of coronary artery disease. They may also protect against irregular heartbeats and help lower blood pressure levels.
Saturated fats are the fats that are considered the “bad fats”; they are harmful to health when eaten in large quantities. These fats are found in red meat, eggs and dairy products. Saturated fats have a tendency to raise levels of bad cholesterol— low density lipoprotein or LDL. Saturated fats are generally solid at room temperature.
Cholesterol is a fat produced in the liver and is considered a waxy steroid or sterol. Every cell in the body has cholesterol in its membrane. Cholesterol helps to build and maintain cell membranes, determines what substances can pass in and out of the cells, is important for the metabolism of fat-soluble vitamins, insulates nerve fibers, and most importantly is involved in the production of sex hormones, including testosterone. It is also essential for the production of hormones that are released by the adrenal glands, including cortisol and aldosterone. Cholesterol is carried in the blood by one of three lipoprotein complexes, including LDL (bad cholesterol), HDL (good cholesterol) or triglycerides (fat).
Also known as hydrogenated fats, these man-made fats are a common ingredient found in processed foods. Trans fats have a significant adverse impact on health— they have been found to raise overall cholesterol levels, lower good cholesterol levels, decrease testosterone and insulin response, adversely affect liver enzyme activity and impair the immune system. They’ve thus been linked to heart disease, cancer and other diseases associated with aging. Although trans fats are not used as frequently in processed foods, they should be avoided.
The Final Word on Fat
It is more satiating than other macronutrients. It can delay the onset of hunger, and you will feel fuller post meal. Therefore fats— specifically EFAs in the form of PUFAs and MUFAs— should be included within your diet at 20 to 30 percent of your total calories from either food sources or supplemented for optimal training and weight-loss results.