The Science Behind Fat: Why This Nutrient Is So Good for You
By Vivienne Couris, C2ST Intern, DePaul University
Carbs, protein, fat.
These big three macronutrients are names we hear a lot in our everyday lives, but what are they, really? Most people are familiar with protein and its importance for building muscle, and we know that carbohydrates give you energy, but what about fats? These nutrients are often overlooked, and even feared when, in reality, they are incredibly beneficial to sustaining a healthy body and feeling great. In this post, we’ll discuss why!
The first things to note are the different varieties of fat that exist in foods. “Fat” covers a wide array of specific nutrients, each of which can be sorted into several different categories and subcategories. The broadest of these categories are known as “saturated” and “unsaturated” fats. These names refer to the specific chemical makeup of each type of fat. Saturated fats are mostly solid at room temperature, and are seen in foods such as butter, meat, and cheeses. Unsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature, and are found in foods like olive oil and nuts. Another major type of fat is known as trans fat, which can be seen in battered or sugary foods like cake.
Unsaturated fats are often touted as the “good” fat. They have a weak chemical makeup, which means they are able to provide many benefits to the body without building up and causing health issues (1). These fats have been shown to increase good cholesterol, while lowering our bad LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, which is often responsible for diseases of the heart and arteries (3).
Saturated fats, on the other hand, have a stronger chemical makeup and carry a higher risk of buildup. Despite this, they shouldn’t be completely avoided, as they too carry impressive health benefits. For these reasons, dieticians and researchers don’t quite agree with each other on exactly how much unsaturated fat you need in your diet, but the general consensus is that one should aim to eat these fats in moderation and from mostly wholesome sources (minimally processed foods which nourish your bodies health) in order to gain the best benefits and avoid serious buildup (2).
Some specific benefits that both saturated and unsaturated fats provide for your body include aiding your cells in maintaining a healthy outer barrier. This barrier, or membrane, controls what goes in and out of the cell, as well as safeguards important inner functions. Fats are also used by the body to make and regulate hormones, create and store energy, and assist in the absorption of certain essential vitamins (5). All of these functions contribute to an individual feeling energized and happy throughout the day!
Although fats are generally great for you, there is one type you should try to entirely avoid: trans fats! Trans fats are man-made and heavily processed. They contain extra hydrogen atoms in their chemical makeup, which can cause a myriad of problems within the body (3). Numerous studies link trans fats to a major increase in unhealthy cholesterol, which may eventually lead to heart disease. Trans-fats are also unnatural and non-essential to the human body, meaning there is no “safe level” (4). Luckily, it has gotten much easier to avoid these fats in recent years, as many food manufacturers have phased them out!
Overall, saturated and unsaturated fats offer incredible health benefits to the body. They assist in regulatory processes such as hormone production, help the body to absorb other essential nutrients, and aid in protecting and vitalizing your cells. It’s important to talk about the benefits of healthy fats often in order to educate others on the benefits they can provide for their health and to eliminate any outdated fears surrounding their consumption!