Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Travel Health Basics: Fat

The latest post from April Davis in her series on Travel Health Basics.

Fats, similar to carbohydrates and proteins, are an important nutrient for your student traveler. Fats serve as a primary energy source at rest and during light-to-moderate activity, along with providing calorie-dense nutrients capable of meeting the high energy demands of active itinerary days. In addition, fat provides essential fatty acids required for normal bodily functions, adds flavor to foods, promotes feelings of fullness, and is required for the uptake of certain vitamins. So, while fat gets a bad rap, it is a necessary and healthy nutrient (when consumed properly) that will be important as your student travels with People to People Ambassador Programs.

What are fats and where can I find them?
Similar to the Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz, fats are molecules that are “water-fearing,” or hydrophobic. Unlike the Oz character, however, they do NOT dissolve (or melt) in water but, rather, in more fat. This affects how they are digested, absorbed, and transported throughout the body.

Fats yield 9 calories per gram, compared to only 4 calories per gram for both carbohydrates and proteins. So, if extra calories are needed, you get more bang for your buck with fat. Other nutrients can be converted into fats within the body when excess calories are taken in. For example, if carbohydrates or proteins are eaten in surplus, they will be converted into fats and stored for later use as energy.

Fats are found in most food groups of the MyPyramid food guidance system.
  • The richest sources of fat are found within the oils category of the pyramid.
  • Some grain products as well as certain vegetables provide a small-to-moderate amount of fat.
  • Fruits provide minimal or no fat.
  • Animal sources can vary from low to high in fat and typically contain a higher amount of unhealthy fats.
  • Nuts and seeds are excellent sources of high-quality, healthy fats.
As mentioned previously, some types of fats are considered healthy and essential, while others are unhealthy. (The picture at left shows good fats, courtesy of Travis K on Flickr.) All fats are a mixture of polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and saturated fatty acids. Healthy fats contain a higher percentage of mono- and poly- unsaturated fatty acids and less saturated fatty acids.
  • An easy way to identify most healthy fats is that they are liquid at room temperature. Examples include canola oil, olive oil, peanut oil, and safflower oil.
  • Fats with higher amounts of saturated fatty acids are typically solid at room temperature and include butter, Crisco, lard, and animal fat.
  • For these reasons, getting your recommended daily fat from plant sources is the healthiest option.

During my observation travel with People to People last summer, I witnessed and partook in numerous meals that contained a healthy amount of plant-based fats. Much of this was from olives and olive oil, since most of my time was spent in Italy. Hazelnuts were also a popular addition to the meals and a great source of protein and healthy fat. (Not to mention the lovely bruschetta pictured at left.)

One of the essential fats that is often lacking in the American diet is omega-3 fatty acids. These fats are unsaturated and used as an energy source. However, they are also used to make other compounds such as hormones that reduce inflammation. A lot of research has focused on these fats recently due to the protection they offer to the heart and blood vessels.

Including a source of healthy fat with each meal will help your student absorb crucial nutrients, such as vitamin D and E, and increase the feeling of fullness so that over-consumption is less of a problem. Healthy fats will help your student traveler maintain energy levels on busy travel days. The “Healthy Protein/Carb Snacks for Travel” that were mentioned in my previous two blogs contain proper amounts of healthy fats, too!

Additional Resources
  • Find out how much fat you and your student should be getting on a daily basis (from the USDA)

  • Visit the Nutrition Source from Harvard School of Public Health to learn more about fats and cholesterol.

April D. Davis, RD, CD, ACSM CES


  1. This fantastic post was very nicely written, and it also contains many good facts. I appreciated your professional way of writing the post. Hazelnuts were also a popular addition to the meals and a great source of protein and healthy fat. You have made it easy for me to understand. Good and precise info. Thanks for sharing with us.

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  2. April D. Davis, RD, CD, CESApril 22, 2011 at 10:46 AM

    Thank you for your positive comments and feedback. I am pleased to hear the information was helpful and well received!

    I greatly appreciate writing for People to People because they take an interest in teaching their delegates and the public about healthy nutrition practices, as part of a well-rounded approach to safety.