You may remember the low-fat/high-carb craze back in the 1990s. Butterless bagels were consumed with reckless abandon and reduced-fat cookies, crackers and chips occupied most of the prime real estate on grocery store shelves. Thankfully though, the field of nutrition has recovered from this misunderstood fat-phobia due to more recent research that’s shown certain types of dietary fat can actually improve our health, lower our risk for heart disease and the function and development our brains.
In addition to tasting good and giving foods moisture, dietary fats also slow down digestion. This contributes to our feelings of satiety after a meal and slows the rate at which sugars from carbohydrates enter our blood stream. Shortly after a meal, dietary fat is digested into small chains of fatty acids in the gut. These fatty acid chains are then picked up by our intestinal cells, reassembled and packaged into vessels called chylomicrons, which are sent off to muscle and fat tissue. Once the chylomicrons arrive at the tissue, fatty acids are again released to be taken up by muscle and fat cells. How much fat goes where? Well, if you go for a walk after eating a meal, more fatty acids, as well as glucose, will be delivered to your active muscle tissues to meet their energy demands. If you lay down to take a nap, more of those fatty acids will be stored away in fat tissue simply because they’re not needed immediately for energy.
There are four main types of dietary fats–trans fats, saturated fats, mono- and polyunsaturated fats. The structure of these fats is what makes them behave differently in the body, and ultimately determines how they impact our health. The unhealthier fats have a reputation for negatively impacting our blood cholesterol which increases our risk for heart disease.
Here’s a brief rundown:
The IOM recommends a diet comprised of 20-35% of calories from fats, but as you can see, choosing the right or wrong ones can impact our health in two very different ways. Here are my top 3 tips to maximize the benefits and enjoyment of eating fats:
Fats have a place in every healthy, balanced diet–which is great because they add delicious flavor and texture to food as well as keep us feeling satisfied. The key is to choose more of the healthy and less of the bad fats–though in moderation, those are okay too every once in a while! Feel free to share some of your favorite healthy fats in the comments below. We’d love to hear them!
Graphic by Kim Steinhilber
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Elle Penner, M.P.H., R.D., is the Registered Dietitian and Food & Nutrition Editor at MyFitnesssPal, as well as an active runner and food-enthusiast. For more healthy recipes and fitness inspiration, check out her healthy lifestyle blog and connect with her on Pinterest & Twitter.
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