Fats are your friends

What are dietary fats?

Fat is a type of nutrient, and just like protein and carbohydrates, your body needs some fat for energy, to absorb vitamins, and to protect your heart and brain health. For years we’ve been told that eating fat will add inches to your waistline, raise cholesterol, and cause a myriad of health problems. But now we know that not all fat is the same.

“Bad” fats, such as artificial trans fats and saturated fats, are guilty of the unhealthy things all fats have been blamed for—weight gain, clogged arteries, an increased risk of certain diseases and so forth. But “good” fats such as unsaturated fats and omega-3s have the opposite effect. In fact, healthy fats play a huge role in helping you manage your moods, stay on top of your mental game, fight fatigue, and even control your weight.

By understanding the difference between good and bad fats and how to include more healthy fat in your diet, you can improve your mood, boost your energy and well-being, and even lose weight.

Dietary fat and cholesterol

Dietary fat also plays a major role in your cholesterol levels. Cholesterol is a fatty, wax-like substance that your body needs to function properly. In and of itself, cholesterol isn’t bad. But when you get too much of it, it can have a negative impact on your health. As with dietary fat, there are good and bad types of cholesterol.

  • HDL cholesterol is the “good” kind of cholesterol found in your blood.

  • LDL cholesterol is the “bad” kind.

  • The key is to keep LDL levels low and HDL high, which may protect against heart disease and stroke.

  • Conversely, high levels of LDL cholesterol can clog arteries and low HDL can be a marker for increased cardiovascular risk.

Rather than the amount of cholesterol you eat, the biggest influence on your cholesterol levels is the type of fats you consume. So instead of counting cholesterol, it’s important to focus on replacing bad fats with good fats.

Good fats vs. bad fats

Since fat is an important part of a healthy diet, rather than adopting a low-fat diet, it’s more important to focus on eating more beneficial “good” fats and limiting harmful “bad” fats.

Healthy or “good” fats

Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are known as the “good fats” because they are good for your heart, your cholesterol, and your overall health. These fats can help to:

  • Lower the risk of heart disease and stroke.

  • Lower bad LDL cholesterol levels, while increasing good HDL.

  • Prevent abnormal heart rhythms.

  • Lower triglycerides associated with heart disease and fight inflammation.

  • Lower blood pressure.

  • Prevent atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of the arteries).

Adding more of these healthy fats to your diet may also help to make you feel more satisfied after a meal, reducing hunger and thus promoting weight loss.

Monounsaturated fat – good sources include:

  • Olive, canola, peanut, and sesame oils

  • Avocados

  • Olives

  • Nuts (almonds, peanuts, macadamia, hazelnuts, pecans, cashews)

  • Peanut butter

Polyunsaturated fat – good sources include:

  • Sunflower, sesame, and pumpkin seeds

  • Flaxseed

  • Walnuts

  • Fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, trout, sardines) and fish oil

  • Soybean and safflower oil

  • Soymilk

  • Tofu

Unhealthy or “bad” fats

Trans fat. Small amounts of naturally occurring trans fats can be found in meat and dairy products but it’s artificial trans fats that are considered dangerous. This is the worst type of fat since it not only raises bad LDL cholesterol but also lowers good HDL levels. Artificial trans fats can also create inflammation, which is linked to heart disease, stroke, and other chronic conditions and contributes to insulin resistance, which increases your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

In the U.S., the FDA is making inroads into outlawing the use of artificial trans-fats in commercially prepared food, but it’s still important to carefully read food labels. No amount of artificial trans fat is considered safe, so aim to eliminate it from your diet.

Trans fat – primary sources include:

  • Commercially-baked pastries, cookies, doughnuts, muffins, cakes, pizza dough

  • Packaged snack foods (crackers, microwave popcorn, chips)

  • Stick margarine, vegetable shortening

  • Fried foods (French fries, fried chicken, chicken nuggets, breaded fish)

  • Anything containing hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, even if it claims to be “trans fat-free”

Saturated fat. While not as harmful as trans fat, saturated fat can raise bad LDL cholesterol and too much can negatively impact heart health, so it’s best consumed in moderation. While there’s no need to cut out allsaturated fat from your diet, most nutrition experts recommend limiting it to 10% of your daily calories.

Saturated fat – primary sources include:

  • Red meat (beef, lamb, pork)

  • Chicken skin

  • Whole-fat dairy products (milk, cream, cheese)

  • Butter

  • Ice cream

  • Lard

  • Tropical oils such as coconut and palm oil

But I’ve read that saturated fat is no longer considered unhealthy

For decades, doctors, nutritionists, and health authorities have told us that a diet high in saturated fats raises blood cholesterol and increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. However, recent studies have made headlines by casting doubt on those claims, concluding that people who eat lots of saturated fat do not experience more cardiovascular disease than those who eat less.

So, does that mean it’s OK to eat as much saturated fat as you want?

What these studies highlight is that when cutting down on saturated fats in your diet, it’s important to replace them with the right foods. For example, swapping animal fats for vegetable oils—such as replacing butter with olive oil—can help lower your cholesterol and reduce your risk for disease. However, swapping animal fats for refined carbohydrates-such as replacing your breakfast bacon with a bagel or pastry-won’t have the same benefits. That’s because eating refined carbohydrates or sugary foods can have a similar negative effect on your cholesterol levels, your risk for heart disease, and your weight.

Limiting your intake of saturated fat can still help improve your health—as long as you take care to replace it with good fat rather than refined carbs. In other words, don’t go no fat, go good fat.

The power of omega-3s

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat and are especially beneficial to your health. There are different types of omega-3s: EPA and DHA are found in fish and algae and have the most health benefits, while ALA comes from plants and is a less potent form of omega-3, although the body does convert ALA to EPA and DHA at low rates.

Research has shown that a diet rich in omega-3s may help to:

  • Prevent and reduce symptoms of depression, ADHD, and bipolar disorder

  • Protect against memory loss and dementia

  • Reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer

  • Ease arthritis, joint pain, and inflammatory skin conditions

  • Support a healthy pregnancy

  • Battle fatigue, sharpen your memory, and balance your

Aaron Conklin