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The Basics of Fats | What Are Healthy Fats and Do We Need Them In Our Diet?

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The Basics: Fat, part I | Nutrition Stripped

Today’s Basics topic is all about fat! We’ve covered other macronutrients here on the Nutrition Stripped blog such as carbohydrates, protein, and digestion, and now the list is growing! Out of all the macronutrients, I’m most intrigued by fat! Today I’m sharing a breakdown of fats function in the human body, how they digest, food sources of fats, and how our bodies store fat. If I haven’t lost you yet, keep reading on to learn the basics of fat from a dietitian’s point of view. Let’s jump in!

fat, part I

What are fats?

Fats are 1 of the 3 macronutrients (protein and carbohydrate being the other two) that make up our food and source of nourishment. Fat is the most calorically dense out of all macronutrients containing about 9 calories / gram of food in comparison to protein giving us 4 calories / gram and carbohydrates that also give us about 4 calories / gram. When we talked about carbohydrates, I shared that carbohydrates are our bodies preferred energy source partially because it’s easier on our bodies (and quicker) to digest and utilize that energy. On the other hand, fat is insoluble in our blood and takes a different route before we can use it as energy. Think of fat as being our reserve, our long-term source of energy, the one that sticks around longest. On a technical side, which we’re about to get very technical: fat is three fatty acids + a glycerol molecule = a triglyceride (tri- as in three and glyceride).

What are functions of fat?

Fats are incredibly important, just are carbohydrates and proteins for the human body, yet fats provide our body with a layer of protection, literally insulating our organs and also keeping a normal body core temperature. Fats also help us digest fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E, and K and keep our brains, cells, hormones, tissues, hair, skin, and nails healthy. Fat provides the structural component to many cell membranes which are essential for cellular development and carrying various messages (hormones) through our body quickly. I’ve worked with many clients recovering from eating disorders and/or very restrictive diets and they’ve gone years without periods due to their low body fat percentage. There’s a fine line between wanting to be “toned” and “ripped” and being a healthy woman able to provide your body with enough fat reserves for healthy hormones and hormonal production. Fat is crucial!

The Basics: Fat, part I | Nutrition Stripped

Digestion of fats

All digestion first takes place in the mouth, carbohydrates more so than fat, because fat needs a little bit more attention and energy to digest. After you eat a fat-containing food, let’s use almonds for example, you first break down the food in your mouth. Next it goes to your stomach where those solid pieces of almond are further broken down. Fats actually hang out here for quite a bit which is one reason for why fat keeps you feeling fuller longer. Depending on the volume of food and components of food, healthy fats may keep you feeling full for hours.

Fat droplets start to pass through the duodenum where bile acids are added (bile acids are from cholesterol in the liver and stored in the gall bladder) – bile acids are really cool! They act like soap, breaking and emulsifying the fat droplets making them into even smaller droplets. I like to use the visual of washing a pan with grease on it with soap, at first the grease barely comes off, but with a little muscle and scrubbing with soap the detergent breaks up the fat and grease into very small particles until it’s gone. But wait, bile isn’t the only thing added in here, our pancreas also adds pancreatic digestive juices (lipase) to the duodenum which helps break down triglycerides into two fatty acids and a monoglyceride. In this grease pan example, though, the fat droplets just don’t disappear, the fatty acids and monoglycerides are absorbed in the microvilli (remember these from Digestion, part I?) and reassembled into triglycerides. Confused yet? Why would our body break something down to just put it back together? Long-chain fatty acids are insoluble in blood and in order to transport these across, triglycerides are packaged into chylomicrons,

Confused yet? Why would our body break something down to just put it back together? Long-chain fatty acids are insoluble in blood and in order to transport these across, triglycerides are packaged into chylomicrons and are basically a way to get released into the lymphatic system and eventually in the blood for circulation. When chylomicrons reach the capillaries of muscle and fat tissue it activates lipoprotein lipase (stay with me here), remember pancreatic lipase from earlier in the duodenum, well lipoprotein lipase breaks down triglycerides for absorption which goes into the fat tissue for storage or it’ll be absorbed in muscle tissue for energy. Where do the chylomicrons go? Basically, they shrink so much that they just become tiny little particles that used to be. They’re absorbed into the liver and the liver metabolizes them. The liver is key at fat metabolism! Liver health = fat digestion efficiency = healthy fat burning potential.

So quick recap: FOOD → STOMACH → PANCREAS → DUODENUM (BILE ACIDS) → SMALL INTESTINE → CHYLOMICRON → MUSCLE OR FAT TISSUE → CHYLOMICRON PARTICLES (REMNANT) → LIVER → GALL BLADDER → cycles back to bile acids

OOF. That’s a lot right? There’s much more to learn about fat and the use of it in the body, but I’ll leave the rest of this process for part II. But wait! Enter in, coconut oil and the difference between medium chain triglycerides and long-chain fatty acids. In a nutshell, medium chain triglycerides are passively diffused from our gastrointestinal tract to the portal system (i.e. our bodies find it super easy to break down the fat before getting rapidly absorbed and used for energy by the body). If you’re curious about digestion overall, check out this post on the Basics of Digestion, Part I.

The Basics: Fat, part I | Nutrition Stripped

Storage of fats

Let’s say you just ate a meal. During and after meals when glucose (remember this from our carbohydrate chat?) is high or we have plenty of it to go around, it can supply more than enough for what our body needs to do. The muscles and liver convert excess glucose (sugars) into glycogen (storage/reserve). But what if we already tap out on glycogen stores? That’s where triglycerides come into play – glycogen is converted to triglycerides and stored as fat. Our bodies are amazing with all these mechanisms, and they’re always efficient at seeking out energy. sS in the case that we need energy, our bodies can actually convert fat back to sugar. Let’s say it’s been a long time in between a meal. Glucose is obtained from the glycogen stores and other molecules I won’t go in depth about here. Then the triglycerides are broken down into glycerol, which converts to glucose, + fatty acids for energy.

How much do we need?

This will always be the most popular question I receive after writing these Basic posts and my answer each time is, it depends! It depends on your lifestyle, your health and fitness goals, your digestion, activity level, and genetics. Good thing, though, that I really love figuring all that out for you so you don’t have to! Just email me and we’ll set up a consultation about your goals and how you can meet your needs without eating too much or too little for optimal health.

Q

Can I gain weight if I eat too much fat? 

A

Yes, just like you can gain weight when you eat more than your body’s needs of carbohydrates or protein.

More resources for your reading pleasure on all things fats: Krause Nutrition textbooks, Basic Medical Biochemistry, Nutrition Therapy and Pathophysiology (the newest edition contains my food photography), and Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism. I hope after reading this you have a better understanding of what fat is and what is does for us. Stay tuned for part II where I answer your questions you comment here about- so what else would YOU like to learn about carbohydrates? Let me know so I can get to writing!

Other nutrition topics and Basics you’ll love:

xx McKel

p.s.

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Share your thoughts

  • Wow, what a great summary! I have Nutrition Therapy and Pathophysiology on my bookshelf from when I was in school – how cool that your photography is in the newer addition!

  • I’m currently a senior nutrition major at Appalachian State University, and that Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism book is my best friend right now!
    Love your simple explanation of fats, I wish I had had it when I was taking Advanced Nutrition 1 last year, it would have helped me understand all this a lot better!

  • Shyla

    Such a greatly worded and informative article! I also love your inclusion of the resource books at the end of the article. I love this macronutrient series! Keep these coming! 🙂

  • Rebeca

    Very informative and easy to understand, as always!

    I was wondering what your favourite sources of fat are, other than nuts. As much as I love them, my body doesn’t as much and I can only have small quantities. I eat avocados, fish (occasionally), tahini, use coconut and olive oil…but I’ve been worrying lately I’m not getting enough fat. Would love it if you could write a bit about that!

    • That’ll be covered in part II! I have many favorite sources, but yes avocados probably top the list. Great questions Rebeca! 😉

  • Em

    Hi McKel, thanks for your post. I was wondering, you state that carbohydrates are our body’s preferred source of energy, however I’m also studying nutrition and in my studies I have found this not to be the case. Rather, in my studies, I have found that fat is the preferred source of energy of the body, except for low amounts of glucose for the brain and muscles. Can you point me to literature I can read up on that explains your statement? I have an open mind and would love to see a different view, as I don’t want to miss something so important! Thank you!

    • Great question! Both fats and carbohydrates can readily be used for energy and can both be great sources of energy. Yes carbs are very efficient at giving us energy, but is efficiency always what we need? The fastest way we make energy is through glycolysis, breaking down glucose to make ATP (again in most cases because our bodies can still “run” on fats and ketone bodies). It depends on what our bodies are “doing”! In a nutshell, it’s good you keep an open mind about these nutrition topics, you’ll do well with that mindset!

  • I’m a prospective RD student working on my prereqs for grad programs. Fats has been a current topic I’ve been really interested to learn about, so I’m excited for your series on Fats! 🙂 I’d love if you could explain more about saturated, unsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats, in terms of which ones have the most health benefits and which foods we should look to get them from?

    • Hi Rochelle! Yes, I’ll definitely hit on those topics in part II. Thanks for tuning in and glad this is a helpful resource (textbooks can get boring, right?!)

  • quincie smith

    Thanks, Mckel!

    I have been looking into studying nutrition for quite a while, but there are so many different schools out there, some being so trendy that it’s hard for me to think about taking them seriously. Could you share a little bit of your educational background and potentially some schools and programs that you would recommend for someone who is interested in furthering their education in Nutrition?

    Thank you!
    Quincie

    • Great question! I actually have that answered on my About page and FAQ, check out those too! I’m also going to start webinars about these topics, stay tuned Quincie- there’s so much to say about it!

  • Heather

    Macronutrients are so interesting! Could you go over omega 6 and omega 3’s and the relative amounts of each type of fat you should obtain from your diet? I’m also a little unclear on their effects on the body -I know they’re involved in inflammation, but my nutrition profs have never gone into much detail about it.

  • Melissa

    I’d love to get your take on nutritional ketosis vs therapeutic ketosis. I’m a nutrition student, and find this subject is hotly debated (even between my professors), so I’m still not entirely sure what my stance on it should be.

    xx

    • McKel Hill

      Great question, Melissa! This was actually an area I was intrigued in during school specifically because of seizure prevention- I’d have to cover this in a video since there’s just too much to comment on here but in a nutshell- always read the research, learn from everyone, and then use your critical thinking skills to develop your own thought and philosophy on it. With nutrition, everyone has a way they think is “right”- that’s the beauty of it and the confusion of it all!

  • Emma

    Hi McKel! Would you be able to speak to the belief that you should always consume fats with fruits to slow down the absorption of sugar & how fat helps us absorb nutrients in some fruits and veggies better? I saw someone posted that this isn’t true and that it actually stops the absorption of sugar into the cells and then that is what actually spikes our glucose levels. However, I couldn’t find her source and couldn’t find much online. I always thought the fiber is what helped us properly digest the fruit. Thanks!

  • Hey Jacy, thanks for the kind words! I’ve written about coconut oil and coconut on the blog– if you go to the NS Kitchen you can see it there or Spotlight on Coconut! Hope that helps and best of luck with your studies!

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