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Why fat is essential to a healthy diet

October 16th, 2023 | 4 min. read

By Jen Azevedo

When we think of fat-rich foods, we think these are the foods to avoid. We have been taught to believe that they will make us overweight, clog our arteries, and give us life-threatening diseases. 

But the story around fat is mostly a myth. Not only is fat healthy, but it is also an essential nutrient necessary for babies, children, adults, and seniors. In fact, when you focus too much on reducing fat, you can deprive your body of what it needs most.

The Paseo Club is a social club based in the Santa Clarita Valley that has been supporting members for 20 years. We have programs for fitness, nutrition, and socializing. 

Our nutritionists are often asked about how to eat healthily. In this article, we will address fats in your diet. You will learn what the role of dietary fat is, what fats are best to eat (and which to avoid), and why eating fat doesn’t mean you’ll gain weight.

What is the role of dietary fat?

pexels-foodie-factor-557659Dietary fat plays several crucial roles.

  1. Fat is a concentrated energy source that provides the body with nine calories per gram. Fat is often stored and then broken down later as a fuel source for different body functions and physical activity.
  2. Fat aids in nutrient absorption. Certain vitamins that are fat soluble, such as Vitamin A, D, E, and K, require dietary fat to be absorbed better and utilized by the body.
  3. They are a vital component of cell membranes, which are crucial for maintaining the integrity of the cells. They help regulate what enters and exits the cells.
  4. Fat lowers your chance of developing heart disease, regulates blood pressure, and improves cholesterol levels.
  5. Fats are involved in producing certain hormones, which play a role in numerous physiological functions.
  6. Fat insulates and protects the body by providing cushioning around the organs. It helps regulate temperature and acts as a shock absorber.
  7. Fats contribute to the palatability and flavor of food. Having a meal with healthy fat in it keeps you full longer. This helps to minimize food cravings and excess snacking.
  8. Fats support gut health, a critical piece for overall immune function.
  9. Fat feeds the brain and is associated with lowered risks of Alzheimer’s. Research shows that the Mediterranean-inspired MIND diet that is rich in olive oil, fish, and nuts helps support cognitive function and reduces the chance of dementia.

What healthy fats should people consume?

pexels-dana-tentis-725991Not all fats are created equal. A healthy diet should include unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

Unsaturated fats

  • Nuts 
  • Seeds
  • Artichoke hearts
  • Olives and olive oil
  • Avocados and avocado oil

Polyunsaturated fats 

  • Walnuts
  • Flax seeds
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Fatty fish — tuna, salmon, mackerel, whitefish, herring, sardines, oysters, mussels, and some types of fish roe

What are unhealthy fats to avoid?

pexels-pixabay-414262You should always limit highly processed foods. They tend to be full of unhealthy fats, carbohydrates, sugars, and artificial ingredients such as preservatives, colors, and flavors. 

The primary types of fat found in processed foods are partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, such as margarine, shortenings, and commercial frying fats. These fats are made up of trans-fatty acids and are associated with increased heart attacks, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.  

Some scientists are exploring the role of animal fat in the diet. The topic of eating animal fats is controversial. They are rich in saturated fats, typically associated with cholesterol, heart problems, and weight gain. However, some research is debunking these myths and is finding that animal fats can be healthful.

The best approach to choosing which fats to eat is to pay attention to your body and consult your primary health provider.

How much fat should an average person eat?

According to the American dietary guidelines, people should consume 20-35% total fat. If you eat a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, your target range for total fat is 44 to 78 grams a day.

Children typically need more fat in their diets as their brains and bodies are developing and growing. 

pexels-polina-tankilevitch-4109912Adults' needs vary based on activity level and body composition. Athletes and people with physically demanding jobs may need more fat to maintain energy levels. Fat can be an important fuel source, especially for those who do endurance sports.

Here are some common foods and their fat content.

  • Fruit — 0-1 gram
  • 1 egg — 5 grams
  • ½ avocado — 12 grams
  • Salmon 3 oz — 9 grams
  • 2 corn tortillas — 2 grams
  • Almonds (24) — 14 grams
  • Cheddar 2 oz — 18 grams
  • Butter croissant — 12 grams
  • Beef (lean cut 3 oz) — 11 grams
  • Chicken breast (roasted) — 6 grams
  • Black beans (1 cup cooked) — 1 gram
  • Whole milk plain yogurt 8 oz —7 grams

Why have people avoided fat for so long?

pexels-miguel-á-padriñán-114121In the mid-20th century, it was believed that heart attacks were caused by a high-fat and high-cholesterol diet. This theory led to recommendations for a low-fat diet. Marketing companies used this information to drive the nonfat diet, producing fat-free products that were even worse for health.

Scientific research has advanced, and newer studies have provided a more nuanced understanding of dietary fat. It is now recognized that certain types of fats are beneficial for health and should be included in a balanced diet.

Does eating fat make you fat?

No!

The concept that eating fat leads to weight gain or body fat accumulation is an oversimplification. Weight gain occurs when there is an excess intake of calories, poor diet choices, especially sugar and highly refined carbohydrates, and not enough exercise — often a combination of all three.

Maintaining a balanced diet, controlling portion sizes, and engaging in regular physical activity are key factors in achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, rather than solely focusing on fat intake.

Living a healthy and fit life

pexels-vlad-chețan-3212808Our understanding of nutrition continues to evolve as new research is published. The role of fat has changed dramatically over the last few decades from a much-maligned substance to a necessary ingredient for health and wellness.

A nourishing diet of protein, vegetables, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats, in combination with regular physical activity, is the foundation of wellness. The Paseo Club has two nutritionists on staff if you would like to learn more about eating a healthy diet.  

The Paseo Club has over 60 fitness classes available to members each week. There are both pickleball and tennis courts and a junior Olympic pool. If you need more personalized attention, choose one of our small group training sessions or a private trainer.

If you are not yet a member of the Paseo Club, this is a great time to join. Schedule a tour and check out all eight acres of the club. You can also meet members, instructors, and staff. 

Jen Azevedo

Jen Azevedo is a tennis professional, pickleball professional, personal trainer, group exercise instructor, and the general manager of the Paseo Club. She loves the community at the Paseo Club and that it is also a safe and fun place for her daughter. Jen’s favorite activities are joining her tribe for trail races or her partners for tennis matches. Occasionally Jen slows down to relax with a book — she reads over 100 a year!