Distinguishing between healthy fats and bad fats is one of the most important first steps to improving your diet, long-term health, and the way you feel. I used to believe that a healthy diet meant consuming as little dietary fat as possible. Trying to follow the “fat-free” craze, I was immediately turned off from anything with even a trace amount of fat in it, even if it contained mostly healthy fats. Under the impression that all fats were evil, I never really paid attention to the little subcategories…
Taking an amazing nutrition class this past semester with Roberta Anding, MS,RD/LD,CSSD,CDE opened my eyes to the truth about fats: that banning them completely from your diet is NOT the healthiest way to live, and that “eating fat will make you fat” is actually a misconception. The key is understanding the different types of fat. Replacing bad fats with right kinds of fats (in moderation of course) in a healthy overall diet actually promotes health and prevents disease more effectively than getting rid of all fats.
The basic types of fat:
The BAD fats: trans and saturated
Trans fat is evil and you should avoid it at all costs. It raises bad cholesterol (LDL) and lowers good cholesterol (HDL), a double whammy for your heart. Common sources of trans fats are margarine, vegetable shortening (crisco), deep fried things, fast food, processed foods, especially packaged baked goods. Some trans fats are found naturally in animal products, but most are created through food processing. Food manufacturers take unsaturated liquid oil and partially saturate the double bonds by adding hydrogen gas (process of hydrogenation), transforming it into a solid trans fat to increase the shelf life of foods. These oils are called partially-hydrogenated – whenever you see this phrase in the ingredients list, sound your alarms! Even if the package claims “no trans fat,” there might STILL BE TRANS FAT because of lax regulations- anything that has less than .5 g is allowed to say it has no trans fat. Food manufacturers can be sneaky by simply decreasing the serving size so the amount of trans fat falls within these requirements.
~MM healthy tips~
1) The best way to reduce your chances of consuming malicious trans fats is don’t eat processed junk or fast food. But if this isn’t an option for you, at least check the ingredients to make sure you don’t see “partially-hydrogenated” or “shortening” anywhere!
2) Even if something says “cholesterol-free” doesn’t mean it won’t raise your cholesterol! Vegetable shortening obviously has no cholesterol itself being a plant source, but the trans and saturated fat it contains can have WORSE effects on your blood cholesterol than consuming dietary cholesterol itself.
Saturated fat is the second-worst type of fat because it raises total blood cholesterol and increases risk
of heart disease and type II diabetes. It is a solid at room temperature because it has no double bonds. Most of the saturated fat Americans eat comes from high-fat meat and dairy. Common sources include butter, meat fat, ice cream, cheese, and processed foods. Coconut oil (see below) and palm oil are plant-based sources. Lots of processed foods have saturated fat added because it increases shelf life and makes food have the desired texture or consistency.
»What’s all the hype about coconut oil?
Coconut oil actually contains more saturated fat than butter, but it has a uniquely high percentage of lauric acid, which raises good cholesterol (HDL) more than other forms of saturated fat. It is rich in medium-chain fatty acids which are broken down efficiently to provide energy. Coconut oil has been praised as “healthy” because of this unique property and the fact that it also contains healthy plant-based compounds and antioxidants.
From what I have gathered, it is okay to use coconut oil in moderation, and it may be a less unhealthy alternative to butter or vegetable shortening when you need to bake or cook with a solid fat. Coconut oil is great for cooking because it doesn’t become damaged with high heat. If you’re going to use coconut oil, make sure it is part of a healthy overall diet, because saturated fat + lots of simple sugars = compounded effect on cholesterol levels.
The type of coconut oil you buy is very important. When choosing coconut oils, make sure it is unrefined / extra-virgin and preferably raw and organic to avoid the heavy processing that diminishes nutritional benefits! A cold-pressed oil is the healthiest option (Barlean’s seems to be a good choice).
The HEALTHY fats:
Monounsaturated fat has one double bond, so it is liquid at room temperature but may become cloudy in the fridge. It is most commonly found in olive oil, avocado, canola oil, and nuts. Studies have shown that monounsaturated fat raises HDL (good cholesterol) without affecting LDL (bad cholesterol), so it reduces risk of heart disease. It is also beneficial for type II diabetes patients because it may improve glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity. Olive oil and other plant sources also are loaded with antioxidants and healthy plant-based compounds (phytonutrients) that contribute to overall health. Monounsaturated fats are prevalent in the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet (see: Garbanzos con espinacas )
~MM healthy tip~
When eating out at restaurants that serve bread and butter as a starter, send back the butter and ask for olive oil instead! …and try to get whole grain instead of white bread …ideally just skip the bread all together to avoid filling up on all those empty calories before your nutritious meal. Also, ask the server to have your meal cooked with olive oil instead of butter.
Polyunsaturated fat comes in two key varieties: Omega-3s and Omega-6s. These are essential fatty acids, meaning that we can’t make them ourselves and need to get them from foods. They are important for brain and heart health, development and growth, muscular contraction, and many other normal bodily functions. The main sources of omega-6s include oils added to foods (canola, safflower, cottonseed, corn oils), and the main sources of omega-3s are cold-water fish (especially wild-caught salmon), nuts and seeds (chia seeds, flaxseed, walnuts), soymilk and tofu, and oils such as walnut and flaxseed oil.
Note: Polyunsaturated fat is most sensitive to oxidation from heat and UV light, so it is important to refrigerate oils such as fish, flaxseed and walnut oil in an opaque container and don’t use them for cooking.
It is important to consume omega-3s and omega-6s in BALANCE. Omega-6s have an inflammatory effect, so too much of it is not good, while omega-3s are anti-inflammatory, which is where the most benefit comes from. Since both fatty acids are processed through the same pathway in our bodies, the more prevalent type wins, crowding out the other. The problem is that eating a normal American diet leads to an imbalance: omega-6s dominate the relatively scarce (and more beneficial) omega-3s.
Omega-3s are the most important type of healthy fats that everyone needs to get more of in order to obtain optimal health and reduce risks of disease and chronic inflammation. Omega-3s also have different varieties: ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) found in plant sources and DHA/EPA found mainly in fish and fish oil. DHA is the most important and effective form of omega-3 because it is found in the brain and is essential to nervous system health. ALA is still good, but our bodies aren’t as efficient in converting it to the more-potent DHA form because of competition from omega-6 acids, so fish provides the most benefits from omega-3s.
Getting more omega-3s reduces chronic inflammation, which leads to significantly better overall health, prevention of disease, less pain, better concentration and focus, less risk of depression, less fatigue, better mood balance, prevention of memory loss, less arthritis, and the list goes on. Chronic inflammation is associated with higher risk of heart attack, cancer, insulin resistance, and a whole range of other health problems. That is why I take a fish oil supplement every day (I use Nordic Naturals ) and try to eat salmon at least twice a week!
~MM healthy tip~
If you have the choice, select wild-caught salmon instead of farm-raised. Wild-caught fish generally live in colder waters than farm-raised, so their fat needs to stay liquid at colder temperatures, and the double bonds in omega-3s act as anti-freeze to ensure their survival. Thus, because of adaptation to their environment, wild-caught salmon has a higher concentration of omega-3s making it healthier for us!
Try out chia seeds! They are a part of my daily diet – not only are they energy-boosting and packed with nutrients, fiber, and omega-3s, but they’re also very versatile to use! You can find them at Whole Foods or other health food stores and they are starting to gain more popularity.
- Sprinkle them on yogurt, smoothies, or salads
- Mix them into oatmeal (see: Pumpkin spice overnight super-oats )
- Soak them overnight with nut milk to create a delicious pudding
- Bake them into breads, muffins, or power bars
- Try mixing some into your water bottle to consume throughout the day – they are great for staying hydrated and feeling full
Sources / more information:
- Heart disease and dietary fat:http://www.jacn.org/content/20/1/5.long
- Saturated fat: http://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/everyone/basics/fat/saturatedfat.html
- Trans fat: http://www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/NFLPM/ucm274590.html
- Coconut oil: http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Health_Letter/2011/May/coconut-oil