Fats are essential -- there’s no two ways about it. While the macronutrients has been much-maligned in prior decades, scientific studies over the past 5-10 years (with more in the works) are showing that healthy fats (consumed in appropriate amounts) are incredibly beneficial.
Today, we highlight the impact of healthy fats on women, in particular.
Why Are Fats Important?
As we mentioned at the outset, fats are essential, which means you need to consume at least some fat in order to support health, fitness, and longevity.
So, why are fats important?
For starters, fats are a source of “slow burning” or “long-lasting” energy for the body. For instance, during times of rest or low-to-moderate intensity physical activity (steady-state cardio), fat is the primary source of energy (ATP) the body uses. Beyond energy production, fats also help:
- Bolster hormone production
- Fortify cellular membranes
- Protect vital organs
- Aid cell growth
- Support cardiometabolic health
Moreover, certain nutrients require the presence of fat to be efficiently absorbed, including the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, & K).
What this means is that dietary fat should not be completely eliminated from your diet (a la the 1990’s fad diets which sought to eschew all manner of dietary fat from daily eating habits in lieu of carbohydrates).
The Best Healthy Fats
Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) are long-chain fatty acids that contain one double bond in the fatty acid chain with the remaining carbon atoms being single-bonded. Oils containing monounsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature but may start to turn solid when chilled.
Hundreds of studies have investigated the benefits of monounsaturated fats, and they have been found to help lower bad cholesterol, improve biomarkers of cardiometabolic health (e.g. cholesterol, triglycerides, etc.), and reduce the risk of all-cause mortality.[1,2] Some other research suggests that consuming monounsaturated fats in lieu of other less healthy fats may help support weight loss.
Monounsaturated fats are found in a variety of plant and animal foods, including:
- Olive oil
Diets high in monounsaturated fats can help with weight loss and may reduce risk factors for heart disease, as long as they don’t add extra calories to your diet.
Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) are dietary fats that have more than one unsaturated carbon bond in the molecule, also known as a double bond. Oils containing polyunsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature but may start to turn solid when chilled.
PUFAs can be further subdivided based on the location of the first double bond relative to the end of the chain. For example, omega-3s and omega-6s are two of the critical essential fatty acids, with each having their first double-bond on either the third or sixth carbon from the end of the fatty acid chain, respectively.
Similar to MUFAs, PUFAs have been rigorously investigated and found to benefit cardiovascular health. More specifically, a review of 15 studies with >56,000 participants found that reducing saturated fat intake and replacing them with heart-friendly fats (such as PUFAs) was associated with greater improvements in total cholesterol and greater protection from cardiovascular events.
Polyunsaturated fats are found in a variety of plant and animal foods, including:
- Sunflower oil
- Safflower oil
PUFAs: A Cause for Concern?
While there has been much fear-mongering around PUFAs, or more specifically omega-6 fats, over the past decade, the reality is that omega-6s (as well as omega-3s) are essential fatty acids (EFAs), which means the body cannot synthesize them on its own. They must be obtained from food (or supplements).
The issue, possibly, is the over-consumption of omega-6s coupled with the under-consumption of omega-3s (in combination with eating too many calories and doing too little exercise). Additionally, many packaged goods on store shelves (pastries, cookies, candies, etc.) are packed with saturated fat and omega-6s, but lacking in omega-3s.
As with all things in life, there is a BALANCE. Omega-3s, omega-6s, monounsaturated fats (and yes), even saturated fats have a place in a healthy, well-rounded diet. So, as long as you’re focusing on mostly whole foods, minimizing junk foods, exercising, and maintaining a healthy body composition, PUFAs need not be feared.
Speaking of fear-provoking fats, few other nutrients have been as demonized and misrepresented as saturated fats. As mentioned above, saturated fats are important for general health and wellness. In fact, saturated fats are required for a variety of biological processes, including healthy hormone production. There’s also some research suggesting that the scare tactics of previous decades is overblown and saturated fat may actually benefit health.[5,6]
While unsaturated fats have one or more double-bonds between carbon molecules in the fatty acid chain, saturated fats are completely filled (“saturated”) with hydrogen molecules, meaning that they contain only single bonds between carbon molecules. As a result of this unique chemical structure, at room temperature as well as when chilled, saturated fats are solid, though they do melt when heated.
Foods rich in saturated fats include:
- Beef tallow
- Coconut oil
- Dark chocolate
- Full-fat dairy
- Fatty cuts of meat
There has been much confusion around healthy fats over the years, but the simple truth is that a combination of monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, and saturated fats is optimal. The “ideal” ratio is dependent on each individual -- current goals, dietary preferences, body composition, genetics, etc.
The main thing is to focus on consuming whole (minimally-processed foods), minimizing hyper-processed (“junk”) foods, engaging in high levels of physical activity, and maintaining a healthy body composition. For added help tracking your daily nutrition intake (including fats), check out the 1UP Fitness App, which makes logging macros quick and easy.
- Schwingshackl L, Hoffmann G. Monounsaturated fatty acids, olive oil and health status: a systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies. Lipids Health Dis. 2014 Oct 1;13:154. doi: 10.1186/1476-511X-13-154. PMID: 25274026; PMCID: PMC4198773.
- Buckland G, Mayen AL, Agudo A, Travier N, Navarro C, Huerta JM, Chirlaque MD, Barricarte A, Ardanaz E, Moreno-Iribas C, Marin P, Quirós JR, Redondo ML, Amiano P, Dorronsoro M, Arriola L, Molina E, Sanchez MJ, Gonzalez CA. Olive oil intake and mortality within the Spanish population (EPIC-Spain) Am J Clin Nutr. 2012;96(1):142–149. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.111.024216.
- DiNicolantonio JJ, O'Keefe JH. Monounsaturated Fat vs Saturated Fat: Effects on Cardio-Metabolic Health and Obesity. Mo Med. 2022 Jan-Feb;119(1):69-73. PMID: 36033137; PMCID: PMC9312452
- Hooper L, Martin N, Jimoh OF, Kirk C, Foster E, Abdelhamid AS. Reduction in saturated fat intake for cardiovascular disease. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2020 Aug 21;8(8):CD011737. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD011737.pub3. PMID: 32827219; PMCID: PMC8092457.
- Astrup A, Magkos F, Bier DM, Brenna JT, de Oliveira Otto MC, Hill JO, King JC, Mente A, Ordovas JM, Volek JS, Yusuf S, Krauss RM. Saturated Fats and Health: A Reassessment and Proposal for Food-Based Recommendations: JACC State-of-the-Art Review. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2020 Aug 18;76(7):844-857. doi: 10.1016/j.jacc.2020.05.077. Epub 2020 Jun 17. PMID: 32562735.
- Gershuni VM. Saturated Fat: Part of a Healthy Diet. Curr Nutr Rep. 2018 Sep;7(3):85-96. doi: 10.1007/s13668-018-0238-x. PMID: 30084105.