An Overview of Dietary Fats and Your Health

diet fat keto paleo whole 30 Mar 31, 2023
By Dr. Patrick Zitt, DC, DNM, MS



There is a lot of contradictory information when it comes to nutrition and the food group most subject to this kind of confusion is fats and oils!

We’re here to clear it up.


What are oils and fats?

Macronutrients -fats, proteins, carbohydrates- are the main building blocks to the foods we eat. All three are essential to good health and energy and are required in relatively large amounts. Each gram of a micronutrient contains a specific number of calories (energy):

  • Carbohydrates = 4 calories per gram
  • Protein = 4 calories per gram
  • Fat = 9 calories per gram

In some circles (we're looking at you, Keto), fats and oils are considered the holy grail of nutrition, encouraging up to 80% of daily calories from fat. Others preach that all fats and oils are health eroding, obesity inducing devils that should be limited as much as possible. The truth is a lot more nuanced than that!


The many benefits of dietary fat

Fat provides us with a lot of energy in a relatively small amount of food which can be stored in the body for later use. But fats are so much more than energy!

Healthy fats will:
  • Protect and maintain cell membranes.
  • Influence mood, memory, and stress by regulating the endocannabinoid system.
  • Impact hormones and fertility by triggering ovulation in women and necessary to the formation of sperm in men.
  • Facilitate the absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K, necessary for the health of just about every system in the body.
  • Protect against anxiety, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and ADHD by stimulating the release of neurotransmitters in the brain.
  • Aid in cellular repair, nerve insulation, and steroid synthesis through the transportation of cholesterol.
  • Influence healthy skin and hair by contributing to the barrier that protects the skin and retains its moisture. This also helps to regulate body temperature.
  • Maintain a healthy gut barrier by increasing gut cell formation and tightening up the barrier, fighting against “leaky gut.”
  • Reduce cardiovascular disease by maintaining a healthy heart rate and blood triglycerides.
  • Regulate blood sugar by slowing down the absorption of sugars and carbohydrates into the blood stream.

As you can see, adequate amounts of fats are absolutely necessary for good health. However, they should not be consumed in quantities that encourage excess weight gain or replace necessary proteins, carbohydrates, and micronutrients.

Furthermore, these benefits are realized by eating the right kind of fats in the right quantities.


What are the types of fats?

For many years, all types of dietary fat were blamed for the rise in obesity rates as well as clogged arteries and other fat related diseases. Current research makes it clear that the type of fat consumed is just as (if not more) important as the amount!

There are 4 main categories of fats:
  • Saturated fats – These are solid at room temperature and not as prone to heat and light damage which makes them great for high heat cooking. It is a healthy fat to consume in moderate This category includes butter, lard and coconut milk/oil.
  • Monosaturated fats – Typically liquid at room temperature and moderately susceptible to damage from light, heat and oxygen. These fats are universally accepted as good for the body, especially the heart. You can find a healthy dose of this fat in olives, avocados, some meats, and macadamia nuts.
  • Polyunsaturated fats – This fat is always liquid at room temperature and the most susceptible to oxidative damage during high heat cooking. There are two types of polyunsaturated fats:
    • Omega 6 Fatty Acids – There are small to moderate amounts in fruits, veggies, grains, and meats and larger amounts in poultry, eggs, beef, and pork. While this is a necessary fat in our diet, too much in proportion to Omega 3 consumption can induce inflammation.
    • Omega 3 Fatty Acids – This health promoting fat is essential to consume in adequate quantities (especially in proportion to Omega 6 intake). It can be found in walnuts, flax seeds, and fatty fish as well as high quality supplements.
  • Trans fats – This type of fat is always solid at room temperature and is highly resistant to oxidization which is why it was often used to fry foods. Trans fats can be naturally occurring or man made, and the difference is huge.
    • Natural – Cows and sheep produce trans fats when digesting grass. We consume small amounts of these natural trans fats in the meat and milk of these animals, but it generally considered safe in moderate quantities.
    • Artificial – These oils increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, inflammation, and some cancers. Though recently banned by the FDA, artificial trans fats may still be found in fried foods, baked goods, pizza, or popcorn. Look for “partially hydrogenated oils” on the ingredient list or “trans fats” on the nutrition label.


Here’s where this gets tricky…all fat containing foods consist of a combination of multiple types of naturally occurring fats. It is not realistic or necessary to ensure the perfect balance of fat types. Instead, we focus on eating a wide variety of healthy fat sources.


Primary sources of healthy dietary fats

At Perfect Human Function, we encourage patients to consume foods that are close to their natural state as much as possible. In addition to the oils you may need to cook or dress a salad, incorporate whole food sources of healthy dietary fats.

  • Seafood (should be consumed at least 3x per week)
  • Meat
  • Eggs
  • Olives
  • Avocados
  • Grass fed butter / Ghee
  • Coconuts
  • Lard, tallow, duck fat
  • Macadamia nuts
  • Sesame seeds
  • Almonds
  • Flaxseeds
  • Chia seeds
  • Walnuts
  • Pecans
  • Pumpkin seeds


How much fat should I eat?

The answer varies by the individual. There are times when a high fat diet may be therapeutic or where dietary fat should be tightly regulated. Working with a functional medicine professional can help narrow in on what is best for your body and health goals.

That said, a starting point for most healthy individuals is 30% of calories from fat each day. That means if your body requires 2,000 calories/day to maintain good health and weight, you should aim for 66-67 grams of fat each day. Remember, this is just a starting point.

Equation: 2,000 (the number of calories you need) x .3 (30% of calories from fat) / 9 (the number of calories in each gram of fat) = your daily goal of fat in grams.

It is surprisingly easy to overconsume fat. Restaurant foods are the biggest contributors as well as packaged chips and baked goods. But it is also easy to underestimate how much oil you add to a sauté pan or how much butter you spread on your toast.

Here is an easy way to see how much fat you are consuming: without making any changes to your usual diet, log your meals, snacks, and drinks into an online food journal that will calculate your macronutrients. Do this for a handful of days (at least 3, no more than 7) where you are eating your “usual” diet. You can make any necessary adjustments from there.

You are welcome to use the online “Food and Mood” journal that I provide to my patients. What I love about this food journal is the vast amount of pre-loaded foods as well as the capability to calculate micronutrients.


Which oils are best for cooking?

When choosing a cooking oil, you will want to consider the flavor but also the smoke point. The smoke point is the temperature at which the integrity of the oil begins to break down and oxidize, potentially contributing to damaged cells and inflammation when consumed.


Smoke points for healthy cooking oils:

Avocado oil, virgin/refined: 375 F / 520 F

Butter, virgin/refined (ghee): 302 F / 485 F

Olive oil, virgin/refined: 350 F / 465 F

Coconut oil virgin/refined: 350 F / 400 F

Palm oil or shortening: 450 F

Beef tallow: 400 F

Lard: 370 F

Macadamia oil: 410 F

Walnut oil, virgin/semirefined: 320 F / 400 F

Sesame oil, virgin/semirefined: 350 F / 450 F

Almond oil: 420 F


Note: When sautéing on “medium”, your oil will generally rise to a temperature of 300-350 F. When cooking on “high”, your oil will generally not exceed 400 but can get up to 450 depending on the pan and length of cook time (such as searing a steak in a cast iron or stainless-steel skillet). This makes many of the above choices suitable for a wide variety of cooking tasks!

If you accidentally allow your oils to heat up too much before you begin cooking and start to see smoke, it is best to start over with new, fresh oil. Even if an oil does not reach its smoke point, the process of being heated can speed up future oxidation. This is fine if you will be consuming the oil quickly, but for this reason, do not reuse cooking oils for future meals.


I hope this overview of fats has been helpful to you on your health journey! If you have questions about how this information may apply specifically to you, you may schedule a free consultation with Dr. Zitt here.


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