What Are the Benefits of Oils and Fats in a Healthy Eating Pattern?
Though not a food group, oils and fats contain nutrients that are an important part of a healthy eating pattern. Dietary fats are found in both plant and animal foods. They supply calories for energy and help with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Fats from food sources protect organs, regulate body temperature and help produce hormones. Dietary fats are also important in optimal brain development of infants and young children.
Fatty acids are the building blocks of oils and fats. They are typically divided into two groups—unsaturated and saturated. Unsaturated fatty acids are further classified as mono- or polyunsaturated fatty acids and are liquid at room temperature; saturated fatty acids are solid at room temperature. All dietary fats are composed of a mix of the three types of fatty acids in varied proportions. For example, most of the fatty acids in whole milk are saturated, but it also contains monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, in addition to the many beneficial nutrients that support health—including calcium, vitamin D, potassium and more. Oils are mostly unsaturated fatty acids, though they have small amounts of saturated fatty acids.
Synthetic trans-fatty acids such as partially hydrogenated oils are made from the process of hydrogenation, which is used to make unsaturated fatty acids solid at room temperature to extend a food’s shelf life and prevent it from getting spoiled or rancid. Known to raise LDL cholesterol levels and increase the risk for heart disease, trans-fatty acids should be avoided.
Incorporating oils and fats into a healthy eating pattern provides important nutrients such as:
Vitamin E: With antioxidant properties that protect cells from free radicals, vitamin E is important for visual, reproductive, blood, brain and skin health. Vegetable oils are the major source of vitamin E in the diet, but this vitamin can also be found in whole grains, green vegetables and nuts and seeds.
Essential fatty acids: Polyunsaturated fats contain some linoleic (omega-6) acid and α-linolenic (omega-3) acid, essential fatty acids that humans must ingest because the body needs but cannot synthesize them on its own. The Western diet typically provides adequate omega-6 fatty acids but needs more omega-3 fatty acids. Foods that are richest in omega-3 fatty acids include salmon, mackerel, herring and oysters.
Unsaturated fats are known for their heart-healthy benefits when eaten in moderation. They can help lower LDL cholesterol levels, reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke. Yet not all fats are created equal, and certain foods containing saturated fats may not be as directly linked to cardiovascular disease risk as previously thought. Research looking specifically at fats in whole milk and reduced-fat dairy foods suggests that dairy fats may have unique properties that differentiate it from fat in other food sources. That is because dairy fats are highly complex and are made up of more than 400 different types of fatty acids. Additionally, fat is not consumed in isolation. The unique package of nutrients found in milk, yogurt and cheese—regardless of fat level—works together to provide multiple health benefits, including optimal growth and development in children and reduced risk of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
The presence of fat in a food does not define it as good or bad. A healthy eating pattern should include fat, with a focus on nutrient-dense foods from the food groups—dairy, vegetables, fruits, grains and protein. Highly processed foods with minimal nutrients should be limited. Fats are higher in calories than carbohydrates and protein and should be moderated to balance total energy intake.
Find out more about the relationship of a healthy eating pattern and activity to overall health by visiting the Physical Activity page.