Lately I’ve been hearing so many different ideas, opinions and suggestions about what constitutes a “healthy diet” that it has my head spinning. Especially when it comes to the type of FAT we consume. I know there are “good” and “bad” fats…I know most of us consume TOO MUCH fat overall…..but other than that, I didn’t know much.
I decided it was time to educate myself a little better and it turns out I hardly knew ANYTHING about this important-to-our-health topic! Since I doubt I’m the ONLY one who is somewhat confused about all the “good fat – bad fat” talk, I decided I would share, in as simple a way as I can, some of what I learned. After all, KNOWLEDGE IS POWER!
First off, it’s important to point out that fats are important nutrients that we NEED in order for our bodies to function properly. Fats help our bodies make cells, protect our organs, and absorb minerals. But not ALL fats are good for our bodies.
Here is a rundown of the FOUR different types of fats and how they each affect our health:
Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are known as the “good fats” because they are good for your heart, your cholesterol, and your overall health.
Monounsaturated fats include olive oil, peanut oil, and avocado & nuts. These fats can help to lower bad cholesterol, reduce inflammation, and regulate and blood-sugar levels. However, not all monounsaturated fats are created equal. The less processing your oils undergo, the better. For example, canola oil is often touted as a light and healthy vegetable oil option, but did you know that it goes through refining, bleaching, “degumming,” and deodorizing processes before it hits the store shelves? These processes can destroy much of the nutritional value of the oil. Instead of canola oil, try cooking with unrefined oils such as coconut, olive, sesame, or avocado. They are minimally processed and full of nutrients!
Polyunsaturated fats are primarily found in vegetable oils (such as sunflower, sesame, soy, corn and safflower), as well as nuts and seeds. These fats can protect against heart disease, lower blood pressure, help protect your muscles, and help your blood to clot.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat. They’re typically found in oily fish, such as salmon, tuna and mackerel. While all types of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are good for you, omega-3 fats are proving to be the best fats you can choose.
Saturated fats and trans fats are known as the “bad fats” because they increase your risk of disease and elevate cholesterol.
Saturated fats, which can be found in animal products like milk, butter, and lard, can raise our overall cholesterol levels. That being said, not all “bad fats” are completely unhealthy; some, such as whole-fat dairy products which are a good source of calcium and protein, and coconut oil which contains an unusual blend of short and medium chain fatty acids, have positive health benefits when consumed in moderation. Grass-fed animal products are far superior to conventionally-produced animal products in levels of vitamins and antioxidants, so replacing your current butter with grass-fed can be a good change for your health.
Of all four groups of fats, trans fats are the WORST for our health. A trans fat is a normal fat molecule that has been twisted and deformed during a process called hydrogenation. During this process, liquid vegetable oil is heated and combined with hydrogen gas. Partially hydrogenating vegetable oils makes them more stable and less likely to spoil, which is very good for food manufacturers—and very bad for us!
Sources of trans fats include margarine and vegetable shortening, and both of those ingredients are used in a great deal of fast foods and commercially-prepared snack foods. Keep an eye out for “partially hydrogenated” oils on the ingredients list of the foods you buy. These are trans fats and should be avoided.
No amount of trans fats is healthy. Trans fats contribute to major health problems, from heart disease to cancer.
So what can we do to ensure that we are getting the right amount of good fats in our diet while avoiding the bad?
Here are just a few tips that I plan on implementing in my diet:
- Cook with olive oil. Use olive oil for stovetop cooking, rather than butter, stick margarine, or lard. For baking, try vegetable oil.
- Eat more avocados. Along with being loaded with heart and brain-healthy fats, they make for a filling and satisfying meal.
- Reach for the nuts. Add nuts to vegetable dishes or use them instead of breadcrumbs on chicken or fish.
- Snack on olives. Olives are high in healthy monounsaturated fats. But unlike most other high-fat foods, they make for a low-calorie snack when eaten on their own.
- Dress your own salad. Commercial salad dressings are often high in saturated fat or made with damaged trans fat oils. Create your own healthy dressings with high-quality, cold-pressed olive oil, flaxseed oil, or sesame oil.
- Try to eliminate trans fats from your diet. Check food labels for trans fats. Avoiding commercially-baked goods goes a long way. Also limit fast food.
- Limit your intake of saturated fats by cutting back on red meat and full-fat dairy foods. Try replacing red meat with beans, nuts, poultry, and fish whenever possible, and switching from whole milk and other full-fat dairy foods to lower fat versions.
- Eat omega-3 fats every day. Good sources include fish, walnuts, ground flax seeds, flaxseed oil, canola oil, and soybean oil.
With so many different sources of dietary fat—some good and some bad—the choices can get confusing.
But the bottom line is simple: don’t go NO-FAT, go GOOD FAT.