Food 

Your Guide to Choosing Healthy Fats

May 11, 2021 8 min read

Hummus with olive oil as a source of healthy dietary fat

It seems like just yesterday, all types of dietary fat got a bad rap. Now, recent diet trends have communities touting the benefits of fat. If all this news around fats is leaving you confused about whether or not you should include them in your diet, this article will serve as your guiding light. 

Ahead, we'll talk about everything you need to know about dietary fat, the good versus the bad, and the power of omega-3s. 

The importance of dietary fats

Fats are macronutrients, just like proteins and carbohydrates. Macronutrients provide the calories or energy required to sustain your daily activities. 

The primary function of fat is to act as an energy reserve. While you may think of carbohydrates as the primary energy source, fat contains more calories (energy) than the other macronutrients combined: protein and carbohydrates provide four calories per gram, while fat contains nine. 

When you exercise, your body first uses calories from carbohydrates. As your workout intensifies, the body starts burning the stored fat

Furthermore, fats help your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E, and K. It also plays a crucial role in testosterone production. 

If fats have so many verifiable benefits, why are they consistently blamed for expanding waistlines and clogging arteries? Well, it's because not all fats are the same. There are good fats that play beneficial roles in the body, and then there are bad fats, such as trans fats and saturated fats, that earn this macronutrient a lousy reputation. 

By understanding the difference between good and bad fats and how to include more healthy fats in your diet, you can improve how well you think and feel, boost your energy, and even trim your waistline.

The different types of dietary fats

There are four major dietary fats in the foods we eat:

  1. Saturated fats
  2. Trans fats
  3. Monounsaturated fats
  4. Polyunsaturated fats

Saturated Fats

Saturated fats are saturated with hydrogen molecules and bound by single bonds between carbon molecules. This molecular structure means saturated fats are solid at room temperature. 

These fats are typically found in animal products like dairy and meat, as well as tropical oils like coconut and palm oil. Saturated fats are also prevalent in junk food. 

An analysis from the Harvard School of Public Health showed that nearly 15% of the saturated fat intake in the standard American diet comes from cheese and pizza, followed by grain-based and dairy desserts, burgers, and chicken dishes. 

Another study conducted on a significant sample size of 1.6 million adults found that those who ate processed meat had a 20% higher risk of heart diseases. Those who ate red meat were at a 16% higher risk than those who didn't. 

However, it's important to note that we cannot blame these links to heart diseases on saturated fats alone. For instance, a study conducted in 2010 showed that heart disease risk could be attributed to excess caloric intake rather than saturated fats alone. 

This is an important distinction because you can consume saturated fats in moderation: 10% of your daily fat intake per the latest dietary guidelines, combined with an otherwise healthy diet. 

Primary sources of saturated fats include red meats, dairy, lard, and tropical oils like coconut oil and palm oil. 

Coconut oil, a source of saturated fat

Trans fats

Trans fatty acids or trans fats are the most harmful types of fats. They are made industrially by hydrogenation, bombarding vegetable oils with hydrogen gas. Your body does not recognize such engineered fats, and they put tremendous stress on your digestive system as a result. 

Trans fats are found in fried goods, margarine, baked goods, processed snacks, and vegetable shortening. 

These fats can increase your LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) and suppress the production of HDL cholesterol (the good kind). It's no wonder that trans-fats are tied to consequences such as heart diseases, inflammationweight gainmemory loss, and so on. 

three-year study conducted on 50 men with atherosclerosis in their heart arteries showed that the disease worsened in the group that consumed more trans fats. Another study drew conclusive links between trans fats in cells and heart attacks. 

In the U.S, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has mandated that food labels list the number of trans fats per serving. However, this doesn't paint an accurate picture because companies can round down to zero if the amount per serving is less than 0.5 grams. Also, since there is no exact definition of "serving size," companies may manipulate this to their advantage. 

So the next time you see a label advertising "zero trans fats," be extra cautious. Look at the ingredients. If you see the words "partially hydrogenated," then the food contains trans fats.  

Unsaturated Fats

Mono and polyunsaturated fats are considered "heart-healthy" fats. These also tend to be liquid at room temperature.

Unlike saturated fats, these fats have double chemical bonds that influence how your body uses them for energy. Monounsaturated fats have one double bond, while polyunsaturated fats have two to six double bonds.

Common sources of unsaturated fats are nuts, seeds, avocados, vegetable oils, and fish oil. Let's break down the types of unsaturated fats to include in your diet. 

Monounsaturated fats

The Seven Countries Study during the 1960s revealed the health benefits of monounsaturated fats. It showed that people in Mediterranean regions who used a lot of olive oil in their cooking enjoyed a low rate of heart disease despite a high-fat diet. Olive oil is one of the richest sources of monounsaturated fats. 

Monounsaturated fats can be found in nuts (almonds, cashews, pecans, peanuts), vegetable oils (olive and peanut), avocado, and nut butters. 

Research shows that eating foods rich in monounsaturated oils can improve your blood cholesterol levels and decrease heart disease risk.

A study of 841,211 adults over a span of 4–30 years found that those who consumed the most monounsaturated fats had a 12% lower risk of death from heart disease and a 17% reduction in the possibilities of a stroke.

While there's no recommended daily intake of monounsaturated fats, the Institute of Medicine recommends using them as much as possible along with polyunsaturated fats to replace saturated and trans fats.

Woman cutting an avocado, a healthy source of monounsaturated fat

Polyunsaturated fats

Polyunsaturated fats are essential fats. This means the body requires these fats for several functions like building cell membranes, blood clotting, fighting inflammation, and muscle movement. Since the body cannot make these fats, you must get them from food. 

These fats are even healthier than monounsaturated oils. One study showed that replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats reduced cardiovascular disease risk by 19%. 

Polyunsaturated fats come as omega-3 fatty acids or omega-6 fatty acids. 

Omega-6 fatty acids

Omega-6 fatty acids occur naturally in vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds. 

Consumption of omega-6 fats has increased dramatically over the years, with the widespread use of refined vegetable oils like sunflower oil, groundnut oil, and canola oil in day-to-day cooking.

Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) is an omega-6 fatty acid found in certain oils like evening primrose oil and borage oil. Research shows that GLA may help reduce inflammation.

A study showed that taking omega-6 supplements in the form of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) may help reduce body mass in humans. 

While omega-6 fatty acids are mostly considered healthy, the increase in consumption throws off the optimal ratio between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. This imbalance can lead to health problems such as cardiovascular disease, inflammation, and autoimmune diseases.

You can fix this by increasing your omega-3 consumption and decreasing omega-6 in your diet. You can begin by cutting off unhealthy sources of omega-6 such as processed snacks, fatty meats, fast foods, and so on. 

The adequate daily intake of omega-6 is 17g per day for men and 12g for women. 

Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are incredibly beneficial to your health and can be found in seafood, especially fatty fish like sardines, tuna, and salmon. You can also get them from certain nuts and seeds like flaxseed, walnuts, hemp seeds, and chia seeds.

The many health benefits that omega-3 acids offer include:

  • Lowering cholesterol levels
  • Protecting heart health
  • Reducing inflammation
  • Promoting healthy functioning of the brain and nervous system

One study of 45,000 adults showed that a diet high in omega-3 led to a 10% lower heart disease risk. 

However, you must exercise caution when consuming seafood in large quantities as it can be a potent source of mercury and can lead to mercury poisoning.

The FDA and EPA have stated that two to three servings of seafood weekly is the safe upper limit. The larger the fish, the more the pollutants, so avoid eating swordfish, shark, king mackerel, and other big fish. Instead, choose fish like tuna, salmon, catfish, or sardines. You can also vary the types of fish you include in your diet or get your omega-3s from algal oil. 

While it's best to get omega-3 fats from food, you can also get in the form of omega-3 supplements. Fish oil has no mercury as mercury binds to protein and not fat. Depending on the supplement, one to two capsules a day should provide you with your daily recommended dosage of omega-3. Vegetarians and vegans can also find omega-3 supplements derived from algae (where the fish get their omega-3s). 

Ideas to add more healthy fats into your diet

Man rinsing cashews in the sink for healthy fats

Make your own salad dressings

Commercial salad dressings come packed with preservatives, sugars, and saturated fats. Make your own salad dressing with olive, flaxseed, or sesame oils and any herbs or spices you like. 

Consume fewer sources of saturated fats

Replace some of your red meat with nuts, poultry, fish, and legumes. You can also reduce your consumption of dairy and switch to plant milk. Some plant milks, like flaxseed milk, carry added omega-3 benefits. 

Get your daily dose of omega-3s

Whether you're a vegetarian, vegan, or non-vegetarian, make no compromise when it comes to your omega-3 fats. Get it in the form of fish, flaxseeds, walnuts, or supplements. 

Choose healthy fats like avocados

There's a reason avocado toast has become so popular. Not only does it taste delicious, but it's an excellent source of good fats and an excellent replacement for butter or margarine. 

Snack on nuts and olives

Make your own trail mix with the nuts of your choice, and keep them in reach to snack on when you're hungry between meals. If you like the taste of olives, they make for an excellent snack as well.

Choose products with whole, full-fat ingredients

Low-fat and fat-free products are often stuffed with added sugar and carbohydrates to compensate for the flavor loss, which can significantly impact the insulin levels in your body. 

Remember, not all fats are bad. Stock your fridge and pantry with fat-rich options like eggs, full-fat yogurt, and avocados. These items will keep you satiated longer and provide additional health benefits. 

In summary

For years, fats were considered the enemy when it came to weight, cardiovascular diseases, and inflammation. However, recent studies have shown that not all fats are bad.  

In fact, some fats promote good health. Healthy fats support a number of functions in the body. They promote heart health, act as solvents for certain vitamins, and even reduce inflammation. Healthy fats include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids that include vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, and sources of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. 

The "bad" or unhealthy fats include saturated fats and trans fats found in fried and junk foods, processed meats, desserts, and foods loaded with preservatives. These fats can lead to clogged arteries, weight gain, and inflammation, so it's best to steer clear of them. 

You can get your daily dose of omega-3 fatty acids from natural sources like seafood, walnuts, flaxseeds and flaxseed oil, or take it in the form of a high-quality supplement. 

Ramya Satheesh - Contributing Writer, Physician's Choice


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