Dietician’s prescription: Time to chew the fat

In the previous article in this series, we explored basic information about protein foods.  This week it’s time to talk about dietary fats, which belong to the biological family of lipids.

Q: What are lipids, what do they do, and why do I need them in my diet?

A: Lipids are naturally occurring molecules that make up cell membranes, and are responsible for maintenance of several body functions.  In the human body, a small amount of body fat is even beneficial for its insulating and protective qualities.

The fat we consume in our daily diets doesn’t go directly to body fat stores as most people have been led to believe. Lipids are much harder to break down into body fat stores than other macromolecules, such as carbohydrates.

There are three main types of dietary fats: saturated fats, unsaturated fats, and trans-fats:

Saturated fats are those that are most likely to stick to artery walls, causing them to harden and lead to cardiac complications, therefore it is best to keep consumption of saturated fats in check.

Unsaturated fats on the other hand, are typically referred to as the “good fats.”  These lipids are liquid at room temperature, and are potentially less harmful than saturated fats.

Trans-fats are only found in minuscule amounts in nature, but are more and more often being added to food products because they improve the shelf life, texture, and taste of some foods. These are something you want to avoid!

Read nutrition labels and check for ingredients such as hydrogenated, or partially hydrogenated oils.  Even if it says “zero trans-fat” check the ingredients. If it is a small enough amount of trans-fat, it doesn’t need to be listed in the nutrient breakdown.

Q: How much do I need?

A: As with other nutrients, the appropriate amount of dietary fat varies from person to person.  According to the textbook, “Understanding Nutrition” by Eleanor Whitney and Sharon Rolfes, the guideline for fat consumption is 20 to 35 percent of daily calories, with most of them coming from unsaturated fats.  So if your daily calorie needs are 2,300 calories a day, then you would be fairly safe consuming 460 to 805 calories (51 to 89 grams) of fat each day.

Q: What if I don’t get enough or get too much?

A: An excess consumption of fats can be unhealthy and is a leading cause for several health problems, including heart attack and stroke.  Also, weight gain can occur with an excess of fat leading to an excess in total calories.

On the other hand though, if a person isn’t eating enough fat in their diet, it can lead to malnutrition, including dry, dull-looking hair, dry, flaky skin, brittle fingernails and low energy levels.

Q: Where can I get it?

A: Saturated fats are mostly found in animal products (dairy, meat and egg yolks), while more plant-based oils and foods contain less saturated fat and more unsaturated fats.  Good plant sources include olives and olive oil, almonds, peanuts and other nuts.

Q: Any good recipes?

A: I wouldn’t usually think to make a specific dish based solely around dietary fats, but rather I think it is helpful to include sources of “good fats” in other foods we make (whether they are carbohydrate or protein-based).

One notable food source of “healthy” dietary fats is flax seeds! You can include ground flax seeds in anything from smoothies, yogurt, oatmeal, whole grain bread, salads, and even seasoned as a coating for baked chicken!