Making Sense of Fat: A Beginner's Guide

Avocados, nut butters, and chocolate, oh my! Fats are a favorite for many, but they also come with a solid dose of fear when the conversation turns to weight. While fat is often the first macronutrient that gets cut in a weight loss plan, scaling down too much will have you missing out on the many, many benefits of healthy fats. Fat is a major source of energy, an important source of fat-soluble vitamins, and is used to build cell membranes and the sheaths surrounding nerves. You can also imagine that fat offers insulation and a protective cushion for our bones and organs.

Know your fats

There are four types of fat: monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated, and trans.

Monounsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature and start to solidify when chilled. They’re commonly found in plant foods and can help lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Monounsaturated fats are high in vitamin E, an important antioxidant that helps protect cells from damaging free radicals.

Polyunsaturated fats are also typically liquid at room temperature and start to solidify when chilled. They’re found in both animal and plant foods and can help lower LDL cholesterol. Polyunsaturated fats contain omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids.

Saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature. They may raise total cholesterol (HDL andLDL), with the balance more tipped toward LDL cholesterol. Saturated fats have a complicated relationship with heart disease, but the American Heart Association recommends limiting your intake.

Trans fats are not a naturally occurring fat but rather a by product of hydrogenation, which helps keep products from going rancid on your shelf. Trans fatsincrease LDL cholesterol while reducing HDL (“good”) cholesterol. They’re also pro-inflammatory and contribute to the development of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. And here’s the thing about transfat food labeling: If a food has less than 0.5g of transfat, the food label can read 0g trans fat. This can add up if you eat several servings.

A quick note about HDL and LDL cholesterol: When we get our cholesterol tested, we’re looking at the lipoproteins that carry cholesterol to and from cells: high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL). The goal is to have more of HDL and less of LDL, and tipping the opposite direction can lead to hypertension, atherosclerosis, and heart disease.This is where the importance of different types of fat comes into play, with the key being to limit transfat intake but eat a variety of other fats.

Food sources

Whole foods don’t contain only one type of fat, but rather a combination of several fatty acids. While we understandably associate red meatwith saturated fat, it also contains some polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat. So for the foods in the table, remember that the fat they’re associated with is their primary source of fat, but they also contain other types of fat.

Consuming sensibly

“Fat Free”
It’s easy to be enticed by the fat-free versions of our favorite foods. But oftentimes the fat-free versionis not the healthier version. Why? Well, the loss of flavor from removing fat is frequently made up for with the addition of sugar. So now you have a fat-free food that is loaded with sugar. Sometimes you’re just better off consuming the fat you wanted to in the first place but in a more sensible portion size.

Let your hands be your guide
Portion control is important for fats because they have more calories per gram than carbohydrates and protein. This means that for the same weight of carbohydrate and protein, you nearly double the calories for fat.

Fun fact: people often consume the same weight of food, not the same amount of calories. Because of this, it may not feel like you’re consuming double the calories when you’re eating the same “weight” of fat as you are carbohydrate or protein. This is why replacing energy dense foods with nutrient dense foods is so effective for weight loss. But back to fats.

The “right” amount of fat is personal, and it’s important not to obsess over particular numbers. Restrictive does not equal effective. However, visual cues can help you be mindful of how much fat you’re consuming and is far less time-consuming than logging calories. And all you need is your own hand. Using this guide, we see that a closed fist is a cup (a serving of milk or 2 servings of ice cream), a thumb is 2 tablespoons (a serving of peanut butter), and a fingertip is a teaspoon (a serving of butter). A cupped hand holds 1-2 ounces, or a serving of nuts.

Instead of fearing dietary fat turning to body fat, learn to consume it in healthy ways. Arming yourself with the skills to seek out healthy fats and consume an ideal amount of fat (not too little, not too much) will help you achieve a well-rounded diet, and appreciating fat and all the wonderful roles it plays in our bodies is a definite plus.


Emily Smith

PR and Marketing Specialist of Vegetable and Butcher and a self-proclaimed nutrition nerd and sustainability junkie. Emily called DC home for three years before making her way to California. Emily has her master's in Nutrition Education and is a Certified Nutrition Specialist® (CNS®) candidate. She's passionate about helping people learn to use food to fuel their outdoor activities, and in her free time you can find her rock climbing. . You can connect with her on her website and on Instagram.

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