You've probably heard a low-fat diet touted as the "healthiest" way to eat, or at least as a sure-fire way to lose weight. While eating too much dietary fat can definitely be harmful to your health, the right kinds of fats in moderation offer major health benefits. Most of us need a reasonable amount of dietary fat in our diets to feel and function at our best.
First, a quick primer on the various types of dietary fats.
Generally speaking, we try to avoid, or limit, saturated or trans fats for cardiovascular health. Saturated fats come mostly from animal sources, including red meat, poultry, and full-fat dairy products. Trans fats are made from oils that have undergone a chemical process called partial hydrogenation, which makes them easier to cook with and increases shelf life.
These two types of fat are also known as "solid fats" because they tend to be solid at room temperature.
The other major categories of fats, which are considered more helpful, include monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat (such as olive oil, safflower oil and peanut oil), and omega-3 fatty acids (including salmon, tuna, and other types of fish, along with avocados and most nuts and seeds), which helps to decrease inflammation and improve heart health.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests that total fat intake makes up 20-35 percent of your daily calories, while trying to limit your saturated fats specifically to 10 percent or less.
Now — why is eating a reasonable amount of fat so important?
■ It allows the body to process vitamin A, D, E, and K. These are known as fat-soluble vitamins, because they dissolve in fat and are stored in body tissues (unlike water-soluble vitamins).
■ Some studies have known that medium-chain triglycerides (fats like coconut oil or palm kernel oil) can help burn excess calories, leading to improved weight loss.
■ Fats are very satiating and can help you feel fuller longer, which helps prevent overeating.
Lastly, certain types of fat can make a huge difference in the health of those who may have trouble eating enough calories due to illness. For example, I work with cancer patients, many of whom have suppressed appetites or loss of taste due to chemotherapy.
A single gram of fat packs 9 calories (compared to 4 calories per gram for both carbohydrates and protein). For my patients, adding more fat into their meals gives them more calories — thus, more energy, which they need while undergoing treatment. Coconut oil and coconut milk are great examples of a type of fat that will help their energy levels along with their ability to absorb nutrients and maintain body weight.