Nutrition 101: Fats [INFOGRAPHIC]

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Nutrition 101: Fats [INFOGRAPHIC]

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:

  • Trans Fat. Though it does occur naturally in some foods, most trans fats are synthetically made during food processing. To make trans fats, perfectly healthy unsaturated fats are blasted with hydrogen molecules so they look and act more like their saturated counterparts. These fats are more stable which means the food products they’re added to will last longer on supermarket shelves, spread easier and are easier to cook with. Unfortunately, these are also the worst offenders when it comes to our health. They’ve been shown to not only increase our bad (LDL) cholesterol, but decrease our good (HDL) cholesterol–a double whammy.
  • Saturated Fat. Mostly solid at room temperature, saturated fats are largely found in animal-derived foods–like red meat and dairy products made from cream or whole milk. Some plants, like coconuts and avocados, are also rich in saturated fats but it’s important to remember that different fats behave differently, even when grouped in the same family. It’s the animal-based saturated fats that we should be most concerned about when watching our intake of these fats because these have been found to increase LDL cholesterol.
  • Mono- and Polyunsaturated Fats. Also known as MUFAs and PUFAs, these fats are generally recognized for their potential health benefits. They’re found in many vegetable and fish-based foods like plant-based cooking oils (i.e. olive, canola, grape seed oils). ground flaxseed, avocados, olives, nuts and seeds, and fatty fish like salmon or mackerel. These fats to be liquid at room temperature and work together to moderate things like inflammation, blood clotting, muscle contractions, as well as improve blood cholesterol levels and protect against heart disease.

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:

  1. Choose more plant and fish-based fats. Add foods like avocados, nuts, seeds and nut butters and fatty fish like salmon into your weekly menu. Cook with oils like olive or grape seed  instead of butter or lard. Make salad dressings with flaxseed oil for a healthy dose of Omega-3s. You can even substitute some avocado for butter when baking!
  2. Start reading ingredient lists.  Avoid those that refer to any ingredient as partially hydrogenated – it’s code for trans fat! Keep your eye out for the biggest culprits–partially hydrogenated oils are commonly found in foods like peanut butter, baking mixes, commercial baked goods like cookies, crackers and cakes as well as some some margarines, lards and fried foods.
  3. Pair nutrient-rich foods with healthy unsaturated fats. The fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, are better absorbed when eaten with some fat. Add oil-based vinaigrettes to those colorful salads and choose 1% over skim milk to get more Vitamin D!

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!

Next week we’ll be wrapping up the Nutrition 101 series with vitamins and minerals. In case you’re catching up, here’s a recap of what else we’ve covered so far: Calories | Carbohydrates | Proteins


Graphic by Kim Steinhilber
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  • Arika

    Great info! Thanks for sharing, Elle! 🙂

  • Joshua

    I guess the whole point of an infographic is to keep it simple, but I think the one item missing from this is the importance of the ratio of omega 6 and 3 fats. The research I’ve read recently seem to indicate that while you need some omega 6 fats, having a high ratio of n-6 to n-3 is actually harmful.

  • crims

    Once again… so if 1 person ate a lot of trans fats and was at healthy weight, and another person ate a lot of “healthy food” but is 500lbs, who is healthier??? You can’t claim a “FOOD IS BAD” in this case, specific fats. The link you posted is an abstract. You have to pay to see the full article from my understanding…

    • Stacy

      Weight is not the only indicator of health – thin folks die from heart disease too. And you actually can read the whole article – look to the right of the abstract! Thanks, Elle, for an informative and helpful post.

      • Daniella Castelucci de Medeiro

        I agree. If a person is fat, it means this person might have health (metabolism) problems or is taking a unhealthy lifestyle – not limmited to food. Food is only one of the several aspects that should be considered when you choose a healty lifestyle, and these infographs are helping us a lot on that sense

  • Daniella Castelucci de Medeiro

    I love these infographics, and would like to publish them in my website – but I would need them translated. If I send you the translated text, would you apply it to your template?

  • Elsdon Ward

    Listen up everyone.

    All of this information is true. Therefore it is helpful to you. Wild or sockeye salmon is not farmed , contains no additives to make it look red – and is a must for you if you want to lose weight and stay healthy. Avocados are packed with nutrients and enzymes and they are only just getting to understand all of the benefits of this fruit (or veg?).

    It is up to you – either you listen to this advice which is the elixir of life – or you do not either way just think about why you should eat junk fats at all. The body does not know what to do with them. We are not designed to process junk fats or corrosive drinks (like cola with sweeteners added) that are used to clean down engines.

    Water seems boring but after a couple of weeks drinking it it tastes better than anything else.

    When I was young there was none of this rubbish and everyone was beautiful and slim all of their lives . There was no need for slimming websites at all. Up to you – but if you want to look good in your clothes do not eat any more junk fats. Do not drink any more colourful drinks and do not consume any dairy products if you can avoid them. You will soon feel the difference.

  • Dallas Lex

    You realize your saturated fat recommendations are nonsense, right?

    • Jorge Fernandez

      Hey Dallas Lex, if you are going to throw a rock at least tell why you are going to do it! If you think the saturated fat recommendations in this article are nonsense please state why! Smartypants!

      • Lj Thomas

        He is probably either a vegan who believes that eating fat makes you fat, or he is ketogenic dieter who makes love to butter, cheese, bacon and lard.

  • Sue Cottle

    Saturated fats are NOT UNHEALTHY. They are what your body is designed to use as fuel, particularly your brain. Butter, lard, ghee are among the best fats for eating/cooking with. BUT you must cut down your carbs, particularly those from grains as gliadin is a major inflammatory.

  • soulsearcher 63

    They are at least no longer telling us just olive or canola oil. So they are getting some things right, but Coconut Oil is one of the healthiest oils and they don’t even mention it. The ratio of 6 to 3 omega fats are really important and should also be mentioned.

    • shorelines

      It is listed w/saturated fats – to consume in limited amounts.

  • John Kinard

    Trans fats do not occur naturally in foods; only if it is in the food that is eaten by various animals or in the soil (a benefit to organic foods). Many partially hydrogenated oils have also become more hydrogenated hence a difference in the definition of trans fats (similar to different grades of motor oil – non-detergent SA versus SN); coffee mate has some partially hydrogenated oil and it used to rinse off a cup and pass through the body; some whole coffee beans come contaminated with an oil about which the same cannot be said. While fats do digest slower, beneficial ones, as was stated, affect vitamin absorption, facilitate digestion, and can make a person feel less hungry because nutrients are being digested instead of trapped. A lower fat diet is still as effective and beneficial, the types of fats are the variable that cause health problems. Given various health problems I have had in the past two years, it is a comment on the efficacy and benefit of different government agencies (FDA, USDA, DEA) that if as much cocaine was added or found in food as types of harmful yeast and fats not indicated, I would have not had various problems with my gastrointestinal tract causing over $100000 of medical charges for healthcare that was not properly done and from which I am still suffering.

  • Amanda

    I make a salad dressing that’s half olive oil and half lemon juice. By itself it tastes nasty, but on vegetables it’s quite good! It’s a good way to get a good dose of healthy fats!

  • …disgusted

    You are SO STUPID. Literally the point of this article is that fats are not bad and you actually just ended up saying that saturated fats are bad. Wtf

    • Bill

      Actually, if you read the article, the author isn’t bashing all saturated fats. She clearly says the ones to watch out for are the ones that have been scientifically proven to negatively impact on cholesterol. Doesn’t seem stupid to me.

  • Patty

    Be warned. Excellent article however you are missing some critical information. Not all fats are created equal- however that is equivocally true on the manufacturing/processing side. Avoid grapeseed, all olive oils below “extra virgin” (even then its a gamble on store label)-extra virgin is fine; canola is one of the healthiest out there- but with canola and sunflower choose ONLY organic or expeller pressed-yes they are out there retail now and not much more. I have taken a few nutrition courses now with RD’s- I have almost 20 years of food service industry background including oil manufacturing. The method on which these oils are derived are as important, if not more important due to the residual chemical toxic components contained within. I am not saying to avoid the fats suggested on this site( just the opposite)- just be aware..price on the shelf can have a higher cost on your health- seek “expeller pressed” or organic on the labels- those are the only ones currently protected by government on labels from very dangerous hidden toxins-not required to be listed on labels. As a culinarian I will try the avacado replacement but to be honest I have my doubts on the “butter” replacement…structurally doesn’t make sense but I’ll give it a shot- good luck to you all!

  • Greg Dahlen

    for a while now I’ve been pushing the masai diet. The Masai are a people in Kenya who are famous for living only on products from the cow: milk; beef; and blood that they extract from their cows without killing them. The Masai also follow an important rule: “If a man eats meat and drinks milk on the same day, he is a glutton.” Therefore every day, I, who follow the diet, have to choose whether it will be a milk day or a meat day (so far I haven’t found a source for blood.) While I like meat, I prefer milk, so basically I’ve been living on fluid milk products for the last six years. Most days I drink perhaps a gallon (3.5 liters) of some kind of milk, usually skim, and that’s all I eat or drink. Sometimes I have some cream, or half and half, or some other kind of milk: 1%, 2%, or whole. I have done very well on this diet, I am six feet, one inch and this morning weighed 151 pounds. On my last physical, my PCP told me I am in the top 3% of people my age healthwise, which I attribute to the diet (my PCP is very aware of my diet.) I believe this diet would be excellent for everyone, and am particularly interested to see if it might help people with various diseases, including biggies like cancer and AIDS, and have been pushing the medical establishment to test it.

    • lola

      I hope this comment is a joke.

      • Greg Dahlen

        no, it isn’t, why would you think it might be? Currently I’m a little heavier, about 168 pounds, probably drinking a gallon and a half of cow skim milk a day. Diet probably 90% cow milk, mostly skim, 10% solid, mixed food. I follow this diet because living mostly on milk helps me with eye pain, I believe it’s because milk is exceptionally easy for the body to digest and use. That’s why I think it would help with many diseases. But I also think it would help healthy people, since milk is already broken up by the mother it doesn’t clog you up as much inside so you think and perform better.

  • wishawasa34

    Canola is a terrible oil. Look at the research.

  • Connor Cocopops Schelling-Tisz

    It is absolutely retarded to suggest using poly and mono-unsaturates for cooking with as opposed to butter as the turn rancid when exposed to heat!!!