In order to understand why fat is important, we must first explain exactly what a fat is. Simply put, a fat is 3 fatty acid molecules attached to a glycerol spine; also known as a triglyceride. These fatty acids are composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen molecules. These fatty acid chains are essentially links of carbons varying from 4 to 28 units long. They can exist as saturated, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated. What does that mean? Carbons have an ability to bind to hydrogen atoms. Picture a long train where every seat contains a passenger. If these passengers were hydrogen atoms, and every seat if full: this would be an example of a saturated fat. That’s why they are solid at room temperature- there’s no room for anyone (or any hydrogens) to move. Now picture a train where one of the seats is empty. This one empty seat, or missing hydrogen, is an example of mono (one) unsaturated fat, and if even more seats were empty- you guessed it; polyunsaturated. Fats can exist anywhere from 4 carbons long (a short train) to 24 or more and play vital roles in your health. Fats are responsible for hormone production, absorption fat soluble vitamins, skin integrity, lubrication of joints, circulation, and the greatest role is providing large amounts of ATP to your cells when carbohydrates are unavailable.
The most important type of fat is a family of poly-unsaturated fats called Omega-3s. They are an integral part of cell membranes throughout the body and affect the function of the cell receptors in these membranes. They provide the starting point for making hormones that regulate blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and inflammation. Omega-3 fats have been shown to help prevent heart disease and stroke, improve blood pressure, and rheumatoid arthritis, and may play protective roles in cancer and other conditions
There are 3 types of omega-3s:
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): found in tuna, mackerel, salmon, and other fatty fishes.
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA): Seaweed, breast milk, and fatty fish
Alpha-Linolenic (ALA): an essential fatty acid (your body can’t synthesize it, must get it from food sources) found in leafy greens, soy, nuts, seeds and seed oils, and whole grains.
Another essential fat is Linoleic Acid, an Omega-6 fat found in plant sources including leafy greens, soy, nuts, nut oils, seed and seed oils, and whole grains. The fattiest organ in your body, the brain, is primarily made of ALA and Linoleic Acid making them both important for cognitive function.
The USDA currently recommends consuming between 20-35% of your daily calories from fat. For an average adult that would be a range of 44-77 grams. This is a universal rule to create a basic guideline for individuals to follow so they can make good choices at home. But fat is not a one-size fits all type of nutrient. Perhaps you are a bodybuilder weighing 300pounds, a ballet dancer with a slim physique, or require a specialized diet from a medical condition. If you feel you may have some nutritional needs outside of those of the average population; always double check with your doctor. Otherwise a little math will do the trick. 0.35 x LBS= calories from fat eat day. Just be sure to get them in the form of plants, seeds, nuts, and fish to keep a healthy balance of Omega-3s and Omega 6s.
Saturated fat is important because it is a component of your cell wall infrastructure. This is important for cells to function, but a little bit goes a long way. Your body uses what it needs, and your liver converts the rest of it to cholesterol. The ideal amount of this type of fat is 24 grams a day in the form of grass-fed butter, organic milk products, organic eggs, coconut oil, or grass fed meats.
Because fat is a calorically dense food and more difficult to digest than carbohydrate and proteins, it’s best to eat them intermittently throughout the day rather than in one sitting. This will allow your organs time to digest efficiently and avoid being over worked. A good rule of thumb- try to keep it under 25 grams per meal or snack.
Knowing the benefits fat plays in our health, a diet completely void of fat would have some dire consequences. After losing body mass, hair would start falling out, and skin would become weak and dry. Overtime without fats to produce hormones, women could experience dysmenorrhea and osteoporosis and men could lack testosterone. Overtime without the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, you are susceptible to poor blood clotting, diarrhea, night blindness, conjunctival deposits, muscle weakness, poor transmission of impulses and poor cognitive function and potentially even organ failure. Fortunately, healthy fats come in so many food sources, this situation can remain in hypothetical form and abstain from our reality!
We’ve learned what fats are important for our health but for the chef’s out there; fats matter in this regard too. Long before oil can boil, cooking oil will decompose, breaking down into isolated chemicals and carbonized particles that will terrorize your taste buds with a burnt flavor as well as set your fire alarm off (not fun for you or your neighbors) This phenomenon is known as the smoke point which can range anywhere from 250 degrees F to more than 450 degrees F. Animal fats such as butter or lard generally smoke at lower temperatures than vegetable and seed oils because saturated fatty acids break down more easily. So whether you’re planning to fry an egg, saute some vegetables, or deep fry a thanksgiving turkey; here’s the breakdown.
1. Sunflower Oil
Why? High smoke point of 485 degrees Fahrenheit making it great for cooking and frying at high temperatures plus it’s a neutral taste. It’s high in oleic and linoleic acids as well as the fat soluble Vitamin E and sterols which are known to block with absorption of cholesterol and reduce this plaque in your arteries. If sunflower oil is too hard to come by or pricey, soybean oil is equally as good at getting the job done because it has an equally high smoke point.
2. Sesame Oil
Why? Feeling bored of the same old things? it an alternative to using olive oil because it is incredibly flavorful and is a new twist on sauteing vegetables/meats. It is an asian flavor and a creative way to make veggies taste new and different. Also high in Vitamin K (essential for blood coagulation) and has almost an equally high smoke point to sunflower oil.
3. Clarified Butter
Why? nothing nutritional about it, once you clarify butter (rid butter of the milk proteins) it is just literally a rich, saturated fat, that is freaking awesome for making a burger on a flat top burner. gets a rich salty crust on the meat 🙂 plus it has a super high smoke point compared to normal butter. (this is the cook in me, not the nutritionist)
4. Olive Oil
Why? Always available, Healthy Fat, full of monounsaturated fats which make it great for the heart, perfect for sauteing vegetables at lower temps (350) and virtually free of any “free fatty acids” aka ones that aren’t attached to a glycerol molecule that causes rancidity. Tip: if you’re baking, opt out of olive oil and go neutral with sunflower. Your taste buds will thank you.
5. Coconut Oil
Why? FLAVOR. Coconut oil is made of medium chain triglycerides, so they go right into your bloodstream but also because it tastes good for caribbean and asian cooking styles. Plus, it’s great for baking because it’s a saturated fat which makes for a moisture cake/brownie/cookie
Now you have the knowledge the tools not only eat the right fats to maintain your health, perhaps a new cooking career is in your future too.
originally written for www.in3nutrition.com