Fats are one of the three macronutrients, along with protein and carbohydrates. They are an integral part of your diet. But not all fats are the same. It is essential to eat certain fats and harmful to eat others. Know which fats to go for (monounsaturated fats) and which to avoid (saturated fats).
We All Should Be Eating Healthy Fats: Why Low-Fat Isn’t Always The Recommendation Anymore
Are Fats Good For You?
For decades, the line of the thinking was that fats were bad for you. The health guidance advocated eating as little dietary fat as possible. However, much of the science purporting to implicate fats in a host of health problems was based on an accumulation of indirect evidence collected over the decades that a low-fat diet would reduce the incidence of heart issues.1 Fortunately, there are more moderate approaches to be taken, which include the right amounts of healthy fats.
What Do Fats Do?
Healthy fats help with with a number of bodily functions, including:
- Providing energy for your body to function properly. For instance, during exercise, your body begins by burning carbohydrates. However, after about 20 minutes, it starts burning fat.
- Providing essential nutrients for skin and hair health. They also assist in absorbing fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E, and K.2
Not All Fats Are Created Equal: Unsaturated, Saturated, And Trans
There are three main types of fats: unsaturated fat, saturated fat, and trans fat. Each has different functions and health outcomes.
Unsaturated Fat (Healthy Fats)
Unsaturated fats are known to support healthy levels of good (HDL) cholesterol, and heart health. Unsaturated fats are mostly found in plants and foods derived from plants, such as nuts, seeds, and plant-based oils. There are a few types of “good” unsaturated fats: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.3
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are the two healthy fat types. They are liquid at room temperature – unlike saturated fats, which are solid at room temperature. Monounsaturated fats, in particular, tend to be found in plant foods. Avocado is one example of monounsaturated fat. They also include nuts and certain oils, such as olive oil. Monounsaturated fats support healthy cholesterol levels and cell health.4
Polyunsaturated fats are found in many plants and animals. Along with monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats can support healthy cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart issues. Additional benefits include supporting:
- Blood sugar control
- Reduced risk for impaired glucose intolerance
- Blood pressure support
Foods that contain these fats include:
- Fish such as salmon, trout, and albacore tuna
- Seeds such as sunflower and flax
- Nuts like walnuts, pecans, and pistachios5
There are two special types of polyunsaturated fats that the body cannot synthesize on its own. These are considered essential fatty acids: Linoleic acid (an Omega-6 fatty acid) and linolenic acid (an Omega-3 fatty acid, also known as ALA).6 Omega-3 fatty acids, in particular, are very beneficial to the health of the heart.
Why is linolenic acid considered good fat? The membranes of every cell in your body are made up, in part, by Omega-3 fatty acids. They also provide your body with energy and help with the functionality of different organs like the heart. Specifically, they support healthy levels of triglycerides in the heart and high-density lipoprotein (“good cholesterol”).7
There are three types: linolenic acid (ALA), DHA, and EPA. Your body can synthesize some of its DHA and EPA from ALA. But since your body cannot make ALA itself, you must eat these Omega-3 fats in your food. Foods that contain them include:
- Seafood like coldwater fatty fish such as salmon and sardines
- Certain seeds and nuts like flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts
- Plant oils like flaxseed oil and canola oil
- Fortified foods such as eggs, milk, and yogurt8,9
A special type of monounsaturated fat is oleic acid. It is also known as an Omega-9 fatty acid. This fat is found in a number of animal and vegetable sources. Olive oil contains a lot of it. One of its benefits is that it does not oxidize easily. Hence, olive oil is often used in diets to reduce the effects of LDL cholesterol and lower the risk of heart-related illnesses.10
Saturated Fat (Unhealthy Fats)
Saturated fats are fat molecules that have no double bonds between carbon molecules. They are “saturated” with hydrogen molecules. This makes them solid at room temperature.11
Saturated fat is often found in animal products such as dairy (cream, butter, cheese, milk), meat (fatty beef, pork, lamb), and poultry (with skin).12
However, saturated fats can be problematic. They have been shown to increase LDL cholesterol levels, which can result in an increased risk of heart conditions.13
The saturated fats to avoid include these foods:
- Pizza and cheese
- Cookies and other grain-based desserts
- Whole and reduced fat milk, butter and dairy desserts
- Meat products such as sausage, bacon, beef, and hamburgers
- Fast food14
Coconut oil contains a high amount of saturated fat – 92%! However, much of it is in the form of medium chain fatty acids such as caproic acid, caprylic acid, capric acid, and lauric acid. Unlike most other saturated fats, these fats have actually been shown to support healthy HDL levels.15
Trans fats are the least healthy fat. These fats are known to raise the risk of heart problems and affect other aspects of heart health. Trans fats are derived from the process of transforming liquid oils into fats that are solid at room temperature. They are unsaturated fats found mostly in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils as well as foods containing these oils. A healthy diet does not include trans fats.16
Trans fats are harmful for a number of reasons:
- They raise LDL (bad) cholesterol.
- They lower HDL (good) cholesterol.
- These two factors contribute to cholesterol buildup in the arteries.17
Foods that contain trans fats include:
- Fried and battered fast foods
- Packaged and processed foods.
- Animal-based foods (these may naturally contain tiny amounts of trans fat)18
Eat Healthy Fats: Try Avocado, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Fatty Fish, And Other Delicious Options
Eat A Balanced Diet
According to the 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines, a balanced diet should include no more than 10% of daily dietary fat calories from saturated fat and 25% to 30% dietary fat calories from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.19 The best way to reduce saturated fat intake is to refrain from eating too many foods that contain them.
You can switch to lower-fat and lean options of dairy, meat, and poultry. These may include skim milk, lean beef, and grilled chicken breast without the skin.20
You can also replace these foods with options that contain healthier, unsaturated fats. On the other hand, you may also choose foods naturally low in saturated fats. These include vegetables, whole grains, and certain cooking oils, such as avocado oil, and walnut oil.
The Mediterranean Diet
In particular, the Mediterranean diet may offer health benefits that include a diet low in red meat, processed sugar, and saturated fat. It is high in fresh vegetables and fruits, nuts, and many other healthy foods.21 Why is this diet so healthy? It emphasizes eating a lot of fresh and whole fruits, vegetables, grains, and tons of olive oil. Numerous studies have shown that eating a diet rich in olive oil may support healthy blood pressure.22
Additionally, the monounsaturated fats in avocados, the Omega-3 fatty acids in seafood, and the high phenolic content of herbs make it particularly noteworthy.
Eat Lots Of Healthy Fats Each Day
Fats are a very crucial component of your diet. They are necessary for many functions in your body, including providing energy, promoting cell growth, protecting your organs, and assisting in absorbing certain fat-soluble nutrients.23 However, it is important to consume the right fats. Always remember to avoid eating too many foods that contain refined carbs and red meat.
Fried foods may also contain trans fats. Eat foods daily that contain healthy fats such as dark chocolate, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and nut butter.24,25,26 You will quickly fill up on these foods without harming your health. Talk to your doctor before making any changes to your diet. They may also have some other advice for getting more healthy fats into your diet.
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