What do pizza, French fries, cookies, and ice cream all have in common besides being utterly delicious? All have loads of fat, which partly explains why it’s so hard to say no to any of them.
No question that fats have a bad reputation, especially those found in fried foods, but did you know that some forms of this macromolecule are essential for good health? The truth is, not all fats should be avoided so here’s a quick primer on which fats you should eat in moderation, and which you should skip.
What do fats do?
Our bodies need fat in order to function properly. Fat serves as a source of energy, insulation, and it helps the body absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K. When we consume more calories than we burn, the excess gets stored as fat, and there is a sound biological reason for this. Our body depends on our fat stores for energy in case food becomes scarce –so fat is part of nature’s backup plan against starvation.
Our body needs essential fatty acids and linoleic acids, and the only way to get them is through food sources. These fatty acids are necessary for proper brain development, controlling blood clotting, and for managing inflammation. For optimal health and healthy weight, the idea is to be choosy about the fats — enjoying the good in moderation while skipping the bad.
How much fat should we eat? Dietary guidelines recommend that adults consume 20 to 35 percent of their total calories from fats. Much more than that will likely pad the waistline because fats are calorically dense — there are nine calories per gram of fat, which is more than double the calories per gram you get in carbohydrates or proteins. Many people eat more than 35 percent of their calories from fat though because fats enhance the flavor of food and help satisfy hunger. Plus, there is an abundance of fat in the commercially prepared foods routinely consumed by Americans.
Opting for good fats over bad fats is definitely better, but that is not to say that good fats can be eaten freely. The truth is all fats — both good and bad — have about the same number of calories, and eating too many calories is what leads to weight gain. For example, did you know that one tablespoon of olive oil and one tablespoon of butter both contain 135 calories and 15g of fat! Therefore even olive oil, a heart healthy fat, can still add loads of calories and fat that can contribute to unhealthy weight gain. Being overweight puts you at greater risk for a variety of diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and some cancers, so losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight means keeping total fat intake in check.
Which fats are bad?
Saturated fats are bad because they increase LDL (bad cholesterol) levels. Consuming too much saturated fat causes cholesterol to build up in the arteries, and is a major risk factor for heart disease. Saturated fats are found in animal products such as whole milk, butter, cheese, cream, fatty meats, coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oils. Always examine nutrition labels, and avoid purchasing foods that are high in saturated fats — anything more than five percent saturated fat is too much, but aim for as little as possible.
Trans fatty acids are created artificially in the laboratory by solidifying vegetable oil through a process called hydrogenation. Trans fats are linked to heart disease, and are even worse for you than saturated fats. They raise LDL (bad cholesterol) levels, and also lower HDL (good cholesterol) levels. You’ll find these in fried foods, margarine, processed foods, and store bought baked goods (because trans fats make for a better shelf life). There is no safe level of trans fat, so stay away from foods that contain any more than zero percent trans fat. Several years ago, New York City actually banned the sales of foods containing trans fats, leading other cities to do the same. Now many food manufacturers no longer sell products containing trans fats. But don’t put all your trust in a food label that says it has zero trans-fat per serving. By law, a serving with less than 0.5g of trans fat can say it has zero! The best bet is to check the ingredient list and if you spot partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, put it back because that means it has trans fats.
Which fats are good?
Unsaturated fats are good fats, and you’ll find these mostly in vegetable and fish products. Unlike bad fats, unsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature. They may be helpful in lowering LDL (bad cholesterol), and also help prevent heart disease. Remember that good fats need to be enjoyed in moderation because they are still as calorically dense as bad fats.
It is important to incorporate foods high in monounsaturated fats into your diet to replace the bad saturated and trans fats you cut out. Foods that are high in monounsaturated fats include olive oil, avocados and most nuts, so a wise replacement would be swapping canola or vegetable oil for olive oil, which is a healthier fat. Nuts are a healthy snack choice for two reasons: they are a good source of monounsaturated fats plus they contain a nice boost of belly-filling fiber, too. Tanya’s Tip: Choose pistachios over almonds and get double of nuts per serving (22 almonds vs. 49 pistachios).
Polyunsaturated fats lower both LDL Bad) cholesterol and triglycerides. Two types of polyunsaturated fats are omega-3 fatty acids and omega- 6 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids may help prevent and even treat heart disease and stroke, and they are found in fish, walnuts, flaxseeds, and canola oil. Omega-6 fatty acids also may lower the risk for heart disease, and you’ll get them in vegetable oils like sunflower oil, walnut oil, and corn oils.
Omega-3 fun fact: Did you know flaxseed oil is higher in total omega-3 fatty acids than fish oil?