We all know that a low-fat diet is the key to losing weight, managing cholesterol, and preventing health problems. For years, fat has been portrayed as public enemy #1 when it comes to a healthy diet. But it’s important to remember that not all fat is bad, in fact some types of fat are essential to our overall health. More important than the amount of fat, is the kind of fat you eat. Bad fats increase cholesterol and your risk of certain diseases, while good fats protect your heart and support good health. In fact, good fats – such as omega-3 fats – enhance physical and emotional health.
The Confusing World of Dietary Fat Dietary fats are found in food from plants and animals. The four major types are:
• Monounsaturated fats
• Polyunsaturated fats (including omega-3s)
• Trans fats
• Saturated fats
While dietary fats all contain 9 calories per gram, they can have very different effects on your health as well as your weight. “Bad” fats, such as trans fats and many saturated fats, are guilty of the unhealthy things all fats have been blamed for – weight gain, clogged arteries, and so forth. But good fats such as omega-3s have the opposite effect. In fact, healthy fats play a huge role in helping you manage your moods, stay on top of your mental game, fight fatigue, and even control your weight. The answer for a healthy diet isn’t to cut out the fat – it’s to replace bad fats with the good ones.
Meet the Good Guys Unsaturated Fats and Oils Unsaturated fats are considered “good” fats and are encouraged as part of a healthy diet. Eating foods rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat can improve blood cholesterol levels and lower your risk of heart disease. These fats may also benefit insulin levels and control blood sugar, which can be especially helpful if you have type 2 diabetes. Omega-3 fatty acids play a vital role in cognitive function (memory, problem-solving abilities, etc.) as well as emotional health.
Foods with healthy dietary fat:
Monounsaturated Fat • Avocados • Olives • Nuts (almonds, peanuts, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, pecans, cashews) • Natural peanut butter (containing just peanuts and salt)
Polyunsaturated Fat • Walnuts, sunflower, sesame, and pumpkin seeds • Flaxseed • Fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, trout, sardines) • Non-GMO sources of soymilk and tofu
Watch out for fats that can be harmful. Trans Fat and Saturated Fat
Trans Fat Small amounts of naturally-occurring trans fats can be found in meat and dairy products but it’s the artificial trans fats that are considered dangerous. These are normal fat molecules that have been twisted and deformed during a process called hydrogenation. During this process, liquid vegetable oil is heated and combined with hydrogen gas. Partially hydrogenating vegetable oils makes them more stable and less likely to spoil, which is very good for food manufacturers – and very bad for you.
Trans fats raise your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and lower your HDL (“good”) cholesterol and increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
Foods with trans fat:
• Commercially-baked goods (cookies, crackers, cakes, muffins, pie crusts, pizza dough, breads like hamburger buns)
• Packaged snack foods (crackers, microwave popcorn, chips, candy)
• Solid fats (stick margarine, vegetable shortening)
• Fried foods (French fries, fried chicken, chicken nuggets, breaded fish, hard taco shells)
• Pre-mixed products (cake mix, pancake, chocolate milk)
• Anything with “partially hydrogenated” oil listed in the ingredients
Saturated Fat Saturated fats are mainly found in tropical oils, dairy, and animal products such as red meat, but poultry and fish also contain some saturated fat. Because not all saturated fat is the same, it can be confusing. The saturated fat in whole milk, coconut oil, or salmon doesn’t pose the same health threat as saturated fat found in pizza, French fries, and processed meat products (such as ham, sausage, hot dogs, salami, and other cold cuts), which have been linked to coronary disease and cancer. And just as saturated fat varies according to its source, the effect of saturated fats on blood cholesterol varies from person to person, depending on genetics and other health factors, adding to the confusion.
The final analysis on saturated fat is not quite black and white. While prominent organizations such as the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association maintain that eating saturated fat from any source increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, other nutrition experts take a different view. As a result there’s an ongoing debate about the merits and dangers of saturated fat. You might say the jury is still out.
Focus on fat from real, not processed food. While the differing opinions on nutrition can be confusing, it is important to remember that our overall dietary pattern is more important than specific foods. We know for sure that the typical Western diet – filled with fried, processed food, packaged meals, and sugary snacks – is leading to higher rates of obesity and illness. Eating less manufactured and industrially-processed food and more “real,” natural food – fresh from the earth, the ocean, or raised on small, local farms – is a good place to start for your food choices, including dietary fats.
Special thanks to Rebecca Turner, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, for her assistance with this article. Congratulations are also in order for her new book, Mind Over Fork, now available on Amazon.com.
Check out Rebecca Turner’s newly released book, Mind Over Fork: Escape Dieting to Find the Healthy Lifestyle You Deserve. Rebecca’s practical advice helps change the way we think about food, by using goal setting, visualization and prioritizing techniques, to transform our relationship with food and achieve greater wellbeing and overall satisfaction.