Food Facts: Fats

Food Facts: Fats

by: Angela Hermes, RD

Dietary fat has been given a bad reputation because extra fat that is not used for energy or maintenance is stored in the body. The human body has a virtually limitless ability to store fat, and this can lead to obesity when too much fat is consumed on a regular basis. A diet that is too high in fat can potentially contribute to the development of heart disease and diabetes.

However, fats are not evil villains and we need them in ample amounts in order to maintain a healthy body.

What are fats?

Fat molecules are comprised of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. Each of the individual atoms is attached to the others in very specific preset ways. The backbone of a fat chain is made up of carbon atoms. Oxygen and hydrogen atoms attach or “bind” to the carbon backbone.

A saturated fat is a fat molecule in which every potential binding site is taken by an atom, and thus, is saturated and cannot hold any more atoms.

An unsaturated fat has one or more binding sites that are not occupied. The two carbon atoms that are attached to an unoccupied binding site make a double bond in order to make up for the empty space.

A monounsaturated fat is an unsaturated fat that has only one double bond. A polyunsaturated fat has two or more double bonds.

There are two unsaturated fatty acids that are not technically essential because the body can manufacture them, but they are called essential because they are necessary for maintaining health.  They are called Omega-3 fatty acids and Omega-6 fatty acids. They are given these names because of where their double bonds are located. The first double bond of an Omega-3 fatty acid is located on the third carbon on its backbone, while the first double bond of the Omega-6 fatty acid is located on its sixth carbon atom. 

Why do I need fat in my diet?

Fats play many important roles in the human body. Of the three macronutrients that provide energy, Fats provide the most concentrated source for energy. While protein and carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram, fats provide 9 calories per gram. Fats also provide flavor in foods, as well as satiety which means they help us to feel full for a longer period of time.

Fats are required as transportation for the fat soluble vitamins in the body. The fat soluble vitamins include vitamins A, D, E, and K.

Fats play an especially important role in bodily structural components including cell membranes, hormones, and nerve coverings. They also act as cushioning which is necessary for protecting vital organs.

What types of fats should I eat?

In general saturated fats of animal origin should be limited in your diet. These types of fat should make up less than 10% of your diet. Animal fats also contain cholesterol, and high cholesterol levels can lead to health problems such as heart disease. 

Coconut oil is considered to be a saturated fat. However, coconut oil is different from the type of saturated fat found in animal products. This is because the saturated fats found in coconut oil is composed of medium length fat chains, while the saturated fats found in animal products are composed of long chain fats. The saturated fat in coconut oil is processed by the body quickly and used as energy, while the long chain fats from animals must be taken to the liver to be metabolized.

Unsaturated fats, including monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are considered to be healthy fats and should be included in your diet. These types of fats are generally found in plant products such as nuts, seeds, olives and avocadoes. Plant fats do not contain cholesterol.

Why are saturated fats considered to be bad fats?

The answer to this question has to do with the way fats function in our cellular membranes. Every cell in the human body has a protective, yet permeable membrane. These cell membranes have two layers. Each layer is comprised mainly of cholesterol, proteins, and fats in the form of phospholipids.

The type of fat you consume on a regular basis is what determines the type of fat that is found in your cell membranes. Individuals who consume a diet that is high in saturated animal fats will have cell membranes that are much less fluid than if they were to consume mostly unsaturated fats. This creates an abnormal cell membrane structure, which is considered in modern day pathology to be the primary factor leading to the development of virtually every disease.

What are Trans fats and why I should I avoid them?

Most margarine and shortening products are produced from unsaturated vegetable oils through the process if hydrogenation. This makes the oil more stable at room temperature, which is great for processed food companies because it increases the storage life of the oil.

Hydrogenation means that a hydrogen atom is added to the naturally unsaturated portion of the fatty acid molecules of vegetables oils to make them more saturated.  The process of hydrogenation changes the chemical structure of the fatty acid from a cis position to a Trans position. Our bodies can only use fats that are in the cis position.

Trans fats are especially harmful to our bodies because they interfere with the natural functions of our cell membranes because they keep our bodies from being able to properly utilize the healthy essential fatty acids.

How much fat should I include in my diet?

According to the American Heart Association fat intake recommendations for healthy individuals over age 2:

  • Limit total fat intake to less than 25-35 percent of your total daily calories
  • Limit saturated fat intake to less than 10 percent of your total daily calories
  • Limit Trans fat intake to less than 1 percent of your total daily calories

The remaining fats should come from sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats such as nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils.

Limit cholesterol intake to less than 300mg per day, for most people.


American Heart Association. "Know Your Fats.”. 17 July 2008. American Heart Association. 13 April 2009 <>.

Murray, Michael and Joseph Pizzorno. The Encyclopedia of healing Foods. New York: Atria Books, 2005.


These statements have not been evaluated by the food and drug administration.  The preceding information and/or products are for educational purposes only and are not meant to diagnose, prescribe, or treat illness. Please consult your doctor before making any changes or before starting ANY exercise or nutritional supplement program or before using this information or any product during pregnancy or if you have a serious medical condition.

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