The Facts on Fat: Good vs. “Bad”
I’m sure most of us have heard the terms “healthy fats” and “bad fats”. After all, they are mentioned pretty often in the fitness industry. But what exactly do these terms mean? Are there really good fats and bad fats? And if so, what are they and how do we avoid them?!
While there are certain foods that give us more health benefits, there aren’t really good foods or bad foods. Food has two important functions; to fuel us (i.e. give us energy to go about our day-to-day lives) and to nourish us. Foods that nourish us, provide us with substances that are necessary for growth, health and good condition. Just because a food source doesn’t tick all these boxes, it doesn’t necessarily make it bad though. Ultimately it’s still providing us with fuel and that’s what we need to survive! All fats, whatever kind, provide us with the same amount of energy, 9 calories / gram.
If we’re too strict with our diets and commit to only eating things that fulfill a certain quota of nourishment, then we are likely going to make ourselves pretty stressed out and miserable. Think about it, do you really want to live in a world without ice cream? No, I didn’t think so! Too much of a good thing, isn’t always a good thing. It’s important to remember to enjoy a balanced diet, which includes enjoying some of the delicious things that give you energy (and comfort maybe?) but probably won’t make you “thrive”.
Role of Fats
As a quick reminder, fats play numerous important roles in the body, including:
- Providing a source of energy
- Acting as building blocks for cell membranes and hormones
- Aiding the absorption of fat soluble vitamins A,D,E &K
- Allowing for the proper use of proteins
- Serving as a protective lining for the organs of the body
- Helping regulate energy by slowing the absorption of food
- Increasing satiety
- Making food taste good
Healthy fatty acid deficiency is surprisingly common and contributes to the following:
- Musculoskeletal issues
- endocrine issues
- cardiovascular issues
- immune issues
- allergies, skin problems
So what are the different types of fats and where do we find them?
Types of Fat
There are 2 main types of dietary fat: saturated and unsaturated fats. Think of these as parent categories for some of the different fats we’ll look at.
From a chemical standpoint, saturated fats are simply fat molecules that have no double bonds between carbon molecules because they are saturated with hydrogen molecules. They are typically solid at room temperature. Saturated fats are naturally occurring in many foods, and most commonly found in animal by-products like meat and dairy products.
There is quite a lot of controversy over cholesterol with research on both sides claiming it does or it doesn’t lead to cardiovascular disease (CVD). The longer standing point of view – and that still upheld in the medical field – is that it does, and that diet and lifestyle can help to reduce LDL levels. The dietary recommendation for the last 50 years has been to reduce saturated fat (SFA) intake in order to reduce LDL levels. However, more research is suggesting that diet as a whole ought to be considered, as some meta-analyses have shown no association between SFAs and CVD.
Here are some examples of foods with saturated fats:
- fatty beef,
- poultry with skin,
- beef fat (tallow),
- lard and cream,
- other dairy products made from whole or reduced-fat (2 percent) milk.
In addition, many baked goods and fried foods can contain high levels of saturated fats. Some plant-based oils, such as palm oil, palm kernel oil and coconut oil, also contain primarily saturated fats, but do not contain cholesterol, and are not considered to be detrimental towards your health.
Because of the long-standing view that saturated fat consumption and CDV are linked, the American Heart Association recommends limiting your consumption of saturated fat to 5-6% of your overall caloric intake. That means, if you consume 2,000 calories a day, your saturated fat intake should not exceed 120 calories or 13 grams of saturated fat derived from animal sources. If you’re concerned about where your cholesterol levels might be, schedule some blood work with your doctor and look at varying your intake of fat from animal sources.
Generally, unsaturated fats are often considered “good fats”. There are two kinds of unsaturated fats; polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats.
Monounsaturated fats have one (“mono”) unsaturated carbon bond in the molecule. Polyunsaturated fats have more than one (“poly,” for many) unsaturated carbon bonds. Both of these unsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature.
Eaten in moderation, both kinds of unsaturated fats may help to improve your blood cholesterol when used in place of saturated and trans fats as these fats help to reduce LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol (the good kind!).
Unsaturated fats are found in fish (such as salmon, trout and herring), eggs and in plant-based foods such as avocados, olives and walnuts. Liquid vegetable oils, such as soybean, corn, safflower, canola, olive and sunflower, also contain unsaturated fats.
1. Polyunsaturated Fats
These include both Omega-3 and Omega-6 which are essential fatty acids. That means your body can’t produce them itself and so we must get them from our diet. Omega-3 is considered extremely beneficial because it improves joint health and reduces inflammation in the body. Research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids can also decrease risk of arrhythmias (abnormal heartbeats), which can lead to sudden death, as well as decrease triglyceride levels, slow growth rate of atherosclerotic plaque, and lower blood pressure.
Omega-6 conversely, is pro-inflammatory, however we still need Omega-6 in our diets. You can get Omega-3 from soybeans, salmon, chia seeds, flax seeds, oysters, and more! So what about Omega-6? Omega-6 can be found in vegetable oils and processed foods containing those oils. While you need both fats, a traditional Western diet already contains lots of Omega-6. Researchers studying indigenous diets estimate that the most balanced diets would have been between 2:1 to 8:1 in favor of Omega-6. Currently in North America and Western Europe the ratio is more like 10:1 to 20:1. Which means most people are getting a lot more Omega-6 than necessary and less Omega-3.
Try improving your ratio of Omega-6 : Omega-3 by minimizing consumption of processed baked goods and reducing your processed vegetable oil consumption.
|Oils to Limit (high in Omega-6)||Oils to Include (low in Omega-6 & Saturated Fat)|
|Sunflower oil||Olive oil|
|Soybean oil||Coconut oil|
|Cottonseed oil||Safflower oil|
|Corn oil||Flaxseed oil|
2. Monounsaturated Fats
As mentioned, monounsaturated fats are simply fat molecules that have one unsaturated carbon bond in the molecule. Olive oil is an example of a type of oil that contains monounsaturated fats. Aside from reducing bad cholesterol levels in your blood, monounsaturated fats provide nutrients to help develop and maintain your body’s cells. Oils rich in monounsaturated fats also contribute vitamin E to the diet, an antioxidant vitamin most Americans need more of.
Trans fat is considered to be the worst type of fat you can eat. Eating trans fats increases your risk of developing heart disease and stroke. It’s also associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Naturally occurring trans fat is found in some meats and dairy products, but most trans fats are man-made fats derived from vegetable oil through an industrial process known as hydrogenation.
Before we knew about the detrimental effects trans fats cause to our health, they were widely used in consumer foods as they were inexpensive, helped lengthen shelf life and gave foods a desirable texture and taste. Several countries and jurisdictions (New York, California, Baltimore & Montgomery County, MD) have taken steps to reduce or restrict the use of trans fats in food service establishments and outlets.
Trans fats can be found in many foods – including fried foods like doughnuts, and baked goods including cakes, pie crusts, biscuits, frozen pizza, cookies, crackers, and stick margarines and other spreads. You can determine the amount of trans fats in a particular packaged food by looking at the nutrition label.
To limit your consumption of trans fats, read the nutrition facts panel on foods you buy at the store and, when eating out, ask what kind of oil foods are cooked in. Replace the trans fats in your diet with monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats.
Fats in Balance
Now that we have a better understanding of the different types of fat, let’s talk about how to balance them in your diet. We need adequate fat to support metabolism, cell signaling, the health of various body tissues, immunity, hormone production, and the absorption of many nutrients (such as fat soluble vitamins A, D E & K).
But it’s important that we keep all these fats balanced, and don’t consume them in excess. Getting a balanced amount of healthy fats helps:
- Cardiovascular protection (though there is less evidence for protecting against heart failure)
- Improve body composition
- Alleviate depression
- And much more!
So get a mix of fat types from whole, unprocessed, high-quality foods. This includes:
- Nuts and seeds
- Fish and seafood
- Pasture-raised/grass-fed animals/eggs & lean poultry
- Olives and avocado
- Unprocessed plant-based oils like extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil
If you’re concerned about your saturated fat intake try reducing the amount of red meat you eat and switching it out for some fish instead! Just two servings (roughly 3.5 oz in size) of oily fish a week can help to lower your cholesterol and increase your body’s balance of Omega-3s. You can easily keep track of what types of fats you’re eating by using the information in a food tracking app like MyFitnessPal.
Healthy Fat Recipes
There are many amazing recipes out there that can help you incorporate the proper amount of healthy fats into your diet. Here are just a few of our favorites:
- Sausage and Egg Muffins: This muffin recipe is easy to follow and they make the perfect high protein snack for your grab and go breakfast.
- Spicy Tuna Poke Bowl: You don’t need to travel all the way to Hawaii to tantalize your taste buds. Say aloha to one of the simplest and most flavorful meals you’ve ever encountered.
- Vegetarian Sweetcorn Fritters: These sweetcorn fritters are perfect for a make-ahead breakfast! They’re vegetarian friendly and packed to the max with protein.
- Vegetarian Tacos: These tacos were crazy tasty and had practically the same consistency and texture as my ground turkey tacos – I actually think I preferred them!
- Salmon Burgers: These burgers taste good whether you make them with fresh or tinned salmon.