Healthy vs. unhealthy fats

It’s a well-known fact that healthy eating is an important part of pregnancy. What’s less well-known is that what’s healthy during pregnancy is sometimes slightly different from what’s healthy in the rest of your life – when women aren’t pregnant, for example, saturated fats are only supposed to make up less than 10% of their daily calorie intake, and polyunsaturated fats are only supposed to provide up to another 10%. On the other hand, during pregnancy, between 20 and 35% of a woman’s calories should come from fats. One thing that’s important, though, is that those calories come from the right kinds of fat as much as possible.

Why fats are important

Fats are an important part of a healthy diet at any time, not just during pregnancy. Fats provide a lot of energy, help your body absorb certain vitamins and minerals, and are a crucial part of building the membranes around the outside of your cells, and the sheaths surrounding your nerves. Fats are also important for muscle movements, blood clots, and inflammation. During pregnancy, fats continue to do all of these important jobs, and also contribute so much to fetal growth.

Unsaturated fat

Unsaturated fats, which are found mostly in plant sources, are the healthy fats that are important to get enough of in your diet. This includes the omega-3 fatty acids that are a vital part of fetal brain and eye development, and help to prevent postpartum depression and preterm birth. Unsaturated fats have a lower concentration of hydrogen atoms bonded to the carbon chains that form their makeup, and hold a liquid form when they’re isolated at room-temperature, instead of solid, like saturated fats. Some healthy sources of unsaturated fats include:

  • Olive, canola, or peanut oil
  • Avocados
  • Most nuts and seeds
  • Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, or sardines

Saturated fat

Saturated fat usually comes from animal sources, has a high concentration of hydrogen atoms in each carbon chain, and is generally regarded as significantly less healthy and essential in a balanced diet than unsaturated fat, though less unhealthy than trans fat. Saturated fat is a fairly common part of the American diet, and unless it is limited, it can contribute to high cholesterol and heart problems. Common sources of saturated fat include:

  • Poultry with skin (as opposed to eaten with the skin removed)
  • Red meat
  • Full-fat dairy products, including butter

Trans fat

Some trans fats are found in small amounts of certain foods naturally, but these are generally created synthetically as a way of giving oils a longer shelf-life. Though in recent years there has been a better understanding of the health concerns caused by trans fats, and a shift away from using them, they can still be found in some commercial baked goods, fast foods and fried foods, and certain margarines and other shortenings or spreads. You can avoid foods containing trans fats either by checking the nutrition facts, or the ingredients list, where it will be listed as “partially hydrogenated oils.” Trans fats have such a reputation for being unhealthy that many governments worldwide have made an effort to ban them, or at least reduce their presence.

Just like before pregnancy, during these months fats are an important part of healthy eating. The important thing is to make sure you’re getting the right fats – mostly unsaturated, only few saturated, and as few trans fats as possible.

  • “Ch. 17: Nutrition During Pregnancy.” ACOG. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Apr 2015. Web.
  • “Guideline: Food Safety for Pregnant Women.” FDA. USDA, Food Safety and Inspection Service, HHS, Food and Drug Administration, Jan 18 2017. Web. 
  • Taylor Wolfram, MS, RDN, LDN. “Top Tips for Eating Right During Pregnancy.” EatRight. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2017. Web.
  • “Pregnancy and Nutrition.” MedlinePlus. Dept of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health, NIH, HHS, Jan 2017. Web.
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