Why do we need fats?

If you have read any of my previous posts, you know that I believe in moderation as part of a healthy balanced diet, focusing on whole foods and limiting processed foods where possible. I do, however, feel that all different types of food including foods high in fat can be part of a healthy diet. I do occasionally eat and enjoy fast food, sugar and alcohol.

So let’s talk about more about fat. What is it? Why do we need it? Where do you find it?

Fat has been a scary word for a long time and can be a very negative, bullying term when used to body shame. But NUTRITIONAL FAT is very important for our health and should not be entirely cut out of a healthy diet. The key is to focus on foods that have more of the types of fats that are good for your body. Does this mean eliminating bad types of fat – meaning no french fries ever? Of course not! However, we have to be mindful how often we consume these foods, since too much of the bad types of fats can have greater health risks. It is also important to keep in mind that we are all different. Just because a low-fat diet worked for someone, doesn’t mean it’s the appropriate diet for everyone. When in doubt about what is right for you, speak with a Registered Dietitian.

What is a fat?

The basic chemical definition of a fat is that they are triglycerides of fatty acid (FA) and glycerols.  There are essential FAs that the body cannot make and so we must get them from our food. If we do not get enough of these fats it can lead to malnourishment and potentially sickness.

Types of fat

Fats are grouped based on their structure (how they are chemically built).

  • Saturated fat – Found in animal products, including meat, poultry, dairy as well as coconut oil.
  • Unsaturated fat – Found in various foods, including both plants and animals.
    • Unsaturated fats are broken down into two subgroups:
      • monounsaturated, found in avocados, olive, nuts, and canola oils
      • polyunsaturated (includes omega fats), found in most vegetable oils
        • One example is omega-3 fatty acids – a type of polyunsaturated fat found in fatty/oily fish, like tuna and salmon as well as some grains such as flax and chia seeds
  • Trans fat – Found naturally, as well as man-made
    • Natural trans fats are found in small amounts in some animal products including dairy
    • Man-made trans fats are created when the chemical structure of unsaturated fats are physically changed so that a fat that is naturally liquid at room temperature becomes solid at room temperature. Products that contain man-made trans fats are processed foods such as hydrogenated margarine, store bought baked goods, some snack foods and fried fast food.

You may have heard the term “good” or ”healthy” fats and “bad” or ”unhealthy” fats. Good or healthy fats usually refer to unsaturated fats as they do have multiple health benefits. Bad or unhealthy fats generally refer to saturated and trans fats.

Despite these nicknames, all fats do have a purpose – even the dreaded saturated and trans fats. Saturated fats are used as an energy source and have been more recently researched for their roles as building blocks for various body cells.  Man-made trans fats have been shown to increase health risks, including heart health risks. Naturally occurring trans fats found in dairy appear to not have the same adverse health impact. There is some early-stage research that natural trans fat in dairy may be helpful in the prevention of some types cancer. This doesn’t mean that people should drink five gallons of milk a day. I mention this only to point out that you do not have to avoid dairy because they contain a small amount of trans fats.

In my next post I will go into more depth about unsaturated fats including the various types of omega fats.

What do fats do?

Nutritional fats are necessary because:

  • some fats are used for energy when other energy sources are unavailable;
  • some fats are stored in the body (called adipose). Stored fat is considered negative by many, but in small amounts it provides energy when food may not be available. Lack of food can still be a problem for many. Conversely, when we do have access to more food than we need, it can make it easy to overeat too often. Excess fat intake, like excess protein and carbohydrates intake, being more than what our body actually needs, can be stored in unhealthy areas of our body (tummy fat);
  • some fats are stored specifically to be structural fats. Structural fats are stored in form of pads that surround and hold our organs and nerves in place and provide cushion for normal pressure and during impact/shock. A good example are the fat pads in our buttocks to cushion the pressure when we sit. We need this fat for protection;
  • some fats are essential to digest and absorb certain parts of our food that we cannot live without, such as fat soluble vitamins; and
  • dietary fats have many other important functions such as an anti-inflammatory, building nerves and cells and are also important for our brain and mood.

Can you get too much?

As mentioned above, excess fat in your diet is stored as fat (adipose) in the body. Fat stored in the body can increase our risk of many diseases and health conditions such as heart problems. Abdominal (tummy) fat has been shown to have higher risks of health proplems such as heart disease than fats in other areas of the body.

Health Canada recently updated the Canada Food Guide (https://food-guide.canada.ca/en/), which recommends limiting foods high in saturated fats while eating a variety of foods. We can do this by limiting highly-processed foods, such as fast food, and as the new Guide suggests trying to have one-quarter of your plate consist of protein, one-half of veggies and fruits and one-quarter of whole grains. Variety in your meals will ensure you are getting a balance of different types of unsaturated fats that your body needs.

Bottom line

Moderation and balance is key! Do you always have to say “no” to a fast food burger and fries? Of course not! Just be mindful of what you are eating (healthy or less healthy) so your overall intake is balanced and healthy.  When it comes to amount of food, any excess food eaten above what your body needs is ultimately metabolized into a different form and is stored. This is also true for fat. We do have to make sure we are not eating too much too often.

On the other hand, too little can cause you to become malnourished leading to many issues, including mood changes. Caution is important when changing your eating habits in a way that highly restricts or provides excess fat. When in doubt, ask your Registered Dietitian what is right for you. If you are interested in speaking with a dietitian please see the Nutrition Services tab of this site to learn about services available through my dietetic private practice.

If you enjoyed this blog and/or found it useful please let me know. Keep an eye out for the next blog “Unsaturated omega fats 101” to learn more specifics about the different types of omega fats coming soon.

Disclaimer:  The above information is intended for general public education and is not intended to be dietetic advice in any respect or to any person. Use of this information does not make any person a direct client of Tanya Brown,RD for any purpose and no such relationship will exist unless a formal client relationship has been entered into. Please consult your Doctor or a Registered Dietitian for individual recommendations prior to making any dietary or lifestyle changes.


Canada’s Food Guide (https://food-guide.canada.ca/en/)

Krause’s Food, Nutrition and Diet Therapy 11th Edition

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