Rethinking Dietary Fat and Its Impact Upon Health


Dietary fat is a highly controversial topic. We have been led to believe that it is the source of Western diseases such as obesity, heart disease, stroke and diabetes and have been implicated in many other conditions such as cancer, infertility and depression. Eating too much of anything may not be the best way to improve health and wellbeing, but dietary fat has been cast as the scourge of human existence.

We have been misled!

The consumption of fat is essential to our health and wellbeing. There are certain varieties of fat that most certainly contribute to ill health and disease, but “healthy” fats are an integral part of our biology and physiology. Vital functions of dietary fat include:

  • Cell integrity, structure and function
  • Hormone and neurotransmitter production
  • Nutrient absorption, utilization, and energy production

Fat also is uniquely capable of insulating vital organs from temperature extremes, shock, and physical trauma.

What is Fat?

On a molecular level, fats are made from a chain of carbon atoms that have hydrogen atoms attached. If every carbon atom has a hydrogen attached, it is said to be saturated with hydrogen atoms and is classified as, you guessed, a saturated fat. Fatty acid chains that are missing a hydrogen atom or atoms are known as monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fatty acids, respectively.

Inside the body, three fatty acids are joined by a binding glycerol molecule to form triglycerides, which primarily function as a source of fuel, which the body can store in unlimited amounts as adipose tissue. In the body, triglycerides:

  • Provide energy and promote proper energy utilization
  • Insulate the body against temperature extremes
  • Protect against shock and trauma
  • Help the body efficiently use carbohydrates and proteins
  • Fight pathogenic substances and mediate the body’s inflammatory response

The Traditional View of Dietary Fat

Traditionally, the effect that fatty acids have upon health is dependent upon their degree of saturation and the points of unsaturation in polyunsaturated fats.

Saturated fats have been indicated to raise LDL cholesterol, which has been linked to an increased risk of CVD. This association has been made because as more cholesterol circulates throughout the body, the more likely it is to form deposits on the walls of the arteries, which restricts blood flow and raises blood pressure.

Trans fats fall under the saturated umbrella, which are actually built from unsaturated fats that are bombarded with hydrogen atoms to make them more functional in food production. Trans fats are extremely harmful to human health and are known to contribute to heart disease, stroke, obesity, diabetes, cancer and vital organ dysfunction.

Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are believed to improve blood lipid profile by increasing HDL, “good”, cholesterol and decreasing LDL, “bad”, cholesterol, which may reduce heart disease risk. This mainly occurs when saturated and trans fats are replaced with the mono- or polyunsaturated variety.

Omega-3 and Omega-6 essential fatty acids, called essential because the body is unable to produce them on its own, fall under the polyunsaturated classification. What differentiates these fats from one another and other polyunsaturated fats is the location of the missing hydrogen atoms along the fatty acid carbon chain discussed above. Omega-3 fatty acids are known to help prevent blood clots, protect against irregular heartbeat, lower blood pressure, and help restore neurotransmitter production in the brain. Omega-6 fatty acids are believed to be especially beneficial effect on blood lipid levels.

Related: Healthy Fats for Healthy Mind and Body

An Updated Opinion on Dietary Fat

There is no question that trans fats are extremely harmful and should be avoided at all costs. However, opinions concerning which fats are “good” and which are “bad” have shifted pretty dramatically and deserve some attention.

Saturated fats are often scorned because of their supposedly detrimental effect upon cholesterol levels, specifically raising LDL and lowering HDL, which increase the risk of heart disease. However, oft neglected research has revealed that excessive consumption of carbohydrates actually creates more damage by oxidizing cholesterol, a stronger risk factor in heart disease. As mentioned above, saturated fats are also critically important in cell structure and hormone production, the body’s primary means of communication, and contain many anti-fungal, antimicrobial, and antiviral properties, which means they keep us healthy and happy.

In addition to this new take on saturated fats, it is now believed that polyunsaturated fats, specifically the Omega-6 variety, may actually ignite inflammation that can “tear” arteries and increase the likelihood of cholesterol deposition and heart disease. The effect that omega-6 fats have upon health is exacerbated when they are not consumed in the right proportions with omega-3 fats, which are usually quite deficient in a modern diet.

Basically, the new opinion on dietary fat suggests that balance is of paramount importance. We need to consume all the different varieties of fat in quantities that best promote health. Generally, this means as many monounsaturated fats as we can get our hands on; modest amounts of saturated fats from ethically sourced, free-range, grass-fed animals; maximize omega-3 essential fatty acids and minimize omega-6’s.

Related: Saturated Fats for Health!

Fatty Acid Foods

Foods rich in healthy unsaturated fats (omega-3s and monounsaturated fats) include fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines; olive and macadamia nut oils; nuts and seeds; and avocados. Foods that contain potentially problematic unsaturated fats (omega-6s) include vegetable oils and pretty much all packaged, processed food. High quality sources of saturated fats are animal foods from ethically sourced, free-range, grass-fed, cage free, antibiotic and hormone-free animals. Coconut and palm oil are excellent sources of plant-based saturated fats and provide a great alternative for those trying to cut down on the animal food intake or maintain a vegetarian or vegan diet.

This may seem like an overwhelming amount of information for those just getting introduced to the new world of dietary fat, but there is one general guideline that will allow you to disregard all the fine print and still obtain all the essential nutrients that support health.

Eat real food!

Real foods, those that are consumed in the form with which they are found in nature, contain all the essential fats that promote health and wellbeing. Conversely, packaged foods that have been highly processed, refined, and chemically altered contain the fats that promote ill health and disease. Vegetables, fruit, meat, eggs, whole grains, nuts and seeds are all that you need.

Related: Nutritious Snacking for Health and Recovery – Product Review 

Another way to approach the “eat real food” guideline is to avoid anything that comes in a box. No crackers, cookies, cakes, candy bars, chips, breakfast cereals, frozen pizza, or giant premade lasagna dinners. There are a few obvious exceptions to this rule, but the idea is pretty solid.

From a nutritional perspective, fat isn’t as “bad” as we have been led to believe. We simply need to make more mindful decisions about which varieties we consume and in what quantities. Recommendations abound, but we are all unique in our dietary needs and there is no way to make blanket recommendations regarding fat. If you need some help in determining what role dietary fat should play in your nutrition program, please feel free to reach out to me at any time.

Egg image courtesy of James Kennedy

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All content on this blog is provided for entertainment purposes only. Information is based on research, discussions with health professionals and personal experience and in not intended to replace consultation with a licensed medical doctor or nutritionist.

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© Matthew Lovitt and TwelveWellness, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matthew Lovitt and TwelveWellness with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.