Fat gets a bad rap, as many think it’s unhealthy and something to be avoided altogether. In fact, there are different types of fats, and some of them are actually good for you. In a previous post on the nutritional value of cashews, we talked about the healthy fat content that one serving of cashews provides. Here, we’ll delve a little deeper into the different types of fats and explain why heart healthy fats should be included in a well-balanced diet (and explain the types of fats that should be eliminated).
Why We Need Fat
You might be surprised to learn that fat actually serves a lot of important functions in our bodies. It’s a major source of energy, it helps absorb fat-soluble vitamins (like A, D, E and K) and minerals, it’s essential for building cell membranes and it’s important for blood clotting, muscle movement and inflammation. But, not all fats are created equal. Some are good, some are o.k., and others are just bad.
The Harvard Health article, The Truth About Fats: The Good, The Bad and The In-Between, breaks down the different types of fats and gives reasons why certain kinds should be chosen over others. As this article explains, all fats have a similar structure: a chain of carbon atoms bonded to hydrogen atoms. What differentiates them is the length and shape of the carbon chains and the number of hydrogen atoms bonded to the carbon atoms. These slight variations make a big difference in terms of human health. The different types of fats are: monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, saturated fat, and trans fat (AKA: the good, the in-between and the bad).
Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated Fats: AKA The Good Fats
Good fats come mostly from vegetables, nuts, seeds and fish. These good fats are broken down into two types: monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. They get their names from the type of carbon chain formed. Monounsaturated fats have a single carbon-to-carbon double bond; polyunsaturated fats have two or more double bonds in the carbon chain. This means that there are fewer hydrogen atoms than are present in trans and saturated fats.
Monounsaturated fats are found in plant food. They help develop and maintain cells, are a source of vitamin E, reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol, help regulate blood sugar and contribute to immune function. Some sources of monounsaturated fats include:
- Olive oil
- Peanut oil
- Canola oil
- Avocado (and avocado oil)
- Most nuts (cashews included)
Polyunsaturated fats are essential fats. This means that our bodies need them for healthy body functioning, yet we cannot make them on our own. We need to get polyunsaturated fats from food. The two types of polyunsaturated fats are omega-3 omega-6 fatty acids. These good fats lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, contribute to brain function and cell growth, reduce triglycerides (a type of fat found in blood), decrease blood pressure, and help to control blood sugar. Some sources of polyunsaturated fats include:
- fatty fish (like mackerel, salmon, sardines),
- Flaxseeds and flax oil
- canola oil
- chia seeds
- Corn oil
- sunflower oil
- safflower oil
Saturated Fats: AKA The In-Between Fat
Saturated fats have become a staple in the traditional North American diet. They are solid at room temperature. Saturated fat gets its name because the carbon chain holds as many hydrogen atoms as it can–it’s saturated with them. Some sources of saturated fats include: red meat, whole milk, cheese, coconut oil and other commercially prepared foods. Consuming saturated fat will increase LDL cholesterol, which can cause artery blockages in the body. Saturated fats may also increase the risk of heart disease, although further evidence is needed to strengthen that claim. However, replacing saturated fat with good fats will lessen these risks and promote an overall healthier lifestyle
Trans Fat: AKA The Bad Fat
Trans fat is the worst type of dietary fat. Small amounts of trans fat naturally occur in some foods (like some meat and dairy products), but most trans fat is a byproduct of a process called hydrogenation, which adds hydrogen atoms to the carbon chain. Hydrogenation turns healthy oils into solids to extend shelf life and prevent them from becoming rancid. On food packaging, this industrial-made fat is usually listed as “partially hydrogenated oil.” Trans fat has made its way into most of the processed food we consume. If you’re eating a store-bought cookie, or having a bite of fast food, chances are you’re eating trans fat. There are no known health benefits to consuming trans fat. Even just a small amount of trans fat is harmful to one’s health. Harvard Health says that “for every 2% of calories from trans fat consumed daily, the risk of heart disease rises by 23%.” Trans fat-rich foods increase harmful LDL cholesterol levels, increase inflammation, which is linked to diabetes, heart disease and other chronic conditions, and, contribute to insulin resistance, which can lead to developing type 2 diabetes.
Making Healthier Fat Choices
All this talk of good fats isn’t to say that you should focus on increasing your fat intake. Fatty foods, even the good ones, tend to be calorie heavy and need to be eaten in moderation. How much good fat should you consume? Currently, there is no recommended daily intake on good fats, but they should not exceed 25-30% of your daily diet. It is recommended that, whenever possible, you replace all trans and saturated fats with mono or polyunsaturated fats to maintain a well-balanced diet. Making healthier choices when it comes to the type of fat you consume will improve your overall health. Cooking with vegetable oil instead of butter, eating nuts instead of snack food, choosing fish over red meat are all simple ways to make the switch to healthier fat intake.