Fats are one of the three macronutrients our bodies need to function properly. Fats provide 9 calories per gram, which is more than double the amount of calories per gram for both carbohydrates and proteins. For this reason, fats are often seen as harmful; however, fat has several beneficial functions in the body.
Essential fatty acids are needed for structure and proper function in almost all cells, for example, neuronal cells, red blood cells, white blood cells, endothelial cells, and others.(1) Cell membranes are made up of phospholipids, lipids meaning fat; therefore fats are crucial for healthy cellular membranes. They are essential for proper brain development, retinal tissue, and for proper neurotransmitter function.(2) Fat is also needed in the diet to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins- A, D, E, and K.(3) Since 60% of the brain is made up of structural fat, essential fatty acids can positively impact learning ability, memory, cognitive function, anxiety and depression.(2) Common signs and symptoms of fatty acid deficiency include dry or scaly skin, eczema anxiety, depression, frequent infections, poor wound healing, learning or visual impairment, behavioral problems, inflamed joints and gastrointestinal complaints.(3)
Types of fats include monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated and trans fat. Monounsaturated fats are beneficial because they help lower cholesterol and reduce the risk for heart disease.(4) Avocados, olives and olive oil, nuts and seeds are sources of monounsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats include omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids (FA). Omega-3 FA are anti-inflammatory, while omega-6 FA tend to be more pro-inflammatory. Omega-6 FA are found in vegetable oils such as corn, soybean and safflower.(4) Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) from omega-3 fatty acids reduce the production of inflammatory substances by competing with omega-6 fatty acids.(1) Oily fish such as salmon, herring, tuna and mackerel are the best sources of omega-3 FA.(5) Other sources include walnuts, flaxseed, pumpkin seeds and their oils. Due to the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3 FA, adequate consumption and/or supplementation can have beneficial effects on several inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, depression, arthritis, gastrointestinal disorders, asthma, psoriasis and others.(1)
Saturated fats come mostly from animal products- beef, poultry, pork, milk, butter; along with coconut. These fats that are solid at room temperature are often referred to as “bad fats,” however, saturated fats do have beneficial properties too. For example, butyric acid is a short chain fatty acid present in milk fat that is involved in cellular growth, immune regulation, and serves as a structural component of the intestinal barrier.(6) Organically grown, grass-fed animals are preferred due to their higher nutrient value.
Trans fats should be eliminated from the diet because they are involved in the development of atherosclerosis and increase one’s risk for cancer.(7) Trans fats are produced by adding hydrogens to vegetable oils and are used by food companies cheaply to increase the stability, solidity and prolong the shelf life of processed foods. Foods such as margarine, hydrogenated peanut butter, packaged baked goods- cookies, pies and cakes commonly contain trans fats. If hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil is listed in the ingredients, the food contains trans fat. (7)
Fats have many functions in the body and can be beneficial for several inflammatory health conditions. Fish, meat, poultry, nuts, seeds, olives, avocados, coconut, and butter can all be consumed as part of a healthy diet. Be cautious of foods labeled “low-fat,” as food companies usually add sugar and other substances to foods when fat is removed to add taste and texture. When purchasing oils, choose those that are cold-pressed, unrefined, extra-virgin, because these processing methods preserve more of the nutrients. (3).
About the Author: Megan Kraeger earned her Master’s degree in Applied Clinical Nutrition from New York Chiropractic College in April 2017. She also has a Bachelor’s degree in Community Health with a concentration in Administration from SUNY Cortland.
Megan is passionate in educating individuals about nutrition and holistic wellness. She is currently earning clinical hours toward the Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) credential under Kim Ross's Supervision.
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3. Brown A. Understanding Food Principles and Preparation. 5th ed. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning; 2015.
4. Dietary Fat. U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMHT0015646/ Retrieved March 3, 2018.
5. Calder PC. Polyunsaturated fatty acids and inflammation. Biochemical Society Transactions. 2005; 33(2):423-7.
6. Berni Canani R, Di Costanzo M, Leone L, Pedata M, Meli R, Calignano A. Potential beneficial effects of butyrate in intestinal and extraintestinal diseases. World J Gastroenterol 2011; 17(12): 1519-1528
7. Lord RS, Bralley JA. Laboratory Evaluations for Integrative and Functional Medicine. Duluth, Georgia: Genova Diagnostics; 2012.