One of the biggest misconceptions in the world of diet and nutrition is that "fat is bad," but the truth is, that's simply not the case. In fact, there are certain kinds of fat that can actually help promote good health, so it's not a wise move to swear off fat altogether. So what kinds of fats are good fats, and which fats should we leave alone? Below is a simple guide that will help you gain a better understanding of the various types of fats that appear on your food labels, as well as the differences between them.
Some Basic Facts About Dietary Fat
Dietary fat is considered to be a "macronutrient," which is basically a nutrient that supplies vital calories or energy for the body. While the body regularly manufactures its own fat from excess calorie intake, this is not the same thing as dietary fat, which comes from plants and animals.
While dietary fat supplies critical nutrients that help the body carry out various functions, certain types of dietary fat are potentially bad for your health, and are commonly thought to contribute to the development of major health problems such as cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. So which types of dietary fat should be avoided? We'll cover the "bad guys" first, and then we'll discuss which fats are actually healthy for you.
"Bad" Dietary FatThere are two primary types of "bad" fat: Saturated fat and trans fat. Here's a brief explanation of each one:
- Saturated fat is commonly found in animal-based foods such as meat, poultry and any full-fat dairy products (i.e., whole milk, cheese, butter, etc.). Saturated fat is thought to raise blood cholesterol levels, specifically the level of LDL (low-density lipoproteins, a.k.a. "bad cholesterol") in the body. According to the American Heart Association, eating lots of saturated fats on a regular basis can increase your risk of getting heart disease. While this "diet-heart connection" has been the subject of quite a bit of controversy over the past decade, the general consensus is that saturated fat should be kept to a minimum in the diet due to the potential health risks that it poses.
- Trans fats (a.k.a. trans fatty acids) have garnered a nasty reputation over the past decade as well due to their association with elevated LDL levels. Trans fats are primarily the product of a process known as partial hydrogenation, which is a technique used by food manufacturers to help extend the shelf life of oils that are found in various foods (e.g., potato chips, pie crust, french fries, margarine, etc.). Studies have shown that consuming foods with trans fats can raise your levels of LDL cholesterol, while also lowering the amount of healthy high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or "good cholesterol") in the bloodstream.
"Good" Dietary FatThe following three "good" fats are considered to be healthy for the body:
- Monounsaturated fat: These fats are found in various oils and foods, and they can help keep your blood-cholesterol and blood-insulin levels in better balance, which can decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease as well as Type 2 diabetes.
- Polyunsaturated fat: These types of fats are found in many plant-based foods such as avocados and nuts. Similar to monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats help towards keeping your blood-cholesterol levels in check.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: These fats are the "superstars" of the good fat world. They are extremely beneficial for the heart, lowering blood pressure and helping to protect against arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat). Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in foods such as fish (e.g., salmon, sardines, mackerel, trout, tuna, etc.), flaxseed and walnuts.
- It's a great idea to regularly incorporate fish into your diet (at least once or twice per week) to get a good helping of omega-3 fatty acids. Broil or bake your fish instead of frying it to avoid any trans fats that may be present in the breading.