Fats 101: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Written by Optimity Team

(4 min read)

Fat-free foods were all the rage back in the 90s. But if you’re still on the fat-free bandwagon, you’re doing yourself a disservice. You see, the fatphobia was unwarranted, because fat is essential in the diet. Having a low-fat diet or eating less fat, in general, isn’t necessarily always the best!

Of course, fat is not the only component of the diet that’s important. What matters most is building healthy eating habits, not focusing on one nutrient in isolation. That means if you eat good fats like olive oil and avocado, but the rest of your diet is filled with salty and sugary processed foods like ice cream and candy, the fats won’t help. It’s important to have a balanced diet made up of real, whole, unprocessed foods, such as vegetables, fruit, whole grains, fish, poultry, nuts, legumes AND healthy fats. So how does one choose healthy fats? Here’s a primer.

Choose Better Fats

Fat is essential in the diet for many reasons:

  • It forms sheaths around our nerves and helps build cells
  • It’s a source of energy (calories)
  • It cushions internal organs and insulates us to keep us warm
  • It helps the body absorb vitamins A, D, E and K 
  • It helps blood clot

Fat is an umbrella term for a host of different fatty acids, and some are better for our health than others. Many foods have a mix of fatty acids – meaning they may contain some omega-3 fat, monounsaturated fat and saturated fat. Wondering which foods to choose most often for their healthy fatty acid content? Let’s break it down so you know what to look for on nutrition labels at the store.

The Good 

Monounsaturated fat: This fat doesn’t tend to affect cholesterol levels, and is a big part of healthy diet plans like the Mediterranean diet and DASH diet for hypertension. For cooking, choose olive or avocado oil most often.

Found in: olive oil, avocado and avocado oil, canola oil and most nuts

Polyunsaturated fats: These are essential fats, which means we need to eat foods that contain them because the body can’t make them. Polyunsaturated fats, when used instead of saturated fats or refined carbohydrates, can help reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels. There are two main types of polyunsaturated fats:

  • Omega-3: Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines, flax seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds and canola oil. This fat is important for heart health and the brain, and helps suppress inflammation.
  • Omega-6: Good sources are vegetable oils (corn, safflower, soy, sunflower, etc.). This fat is healthy in moderation, but having too much can promote inflammation. Use these cooking oils more sparingly, and choose olive or avocado (monounsaturated), or flax or canola oil (omega-3) more often.  

 The Bad:

Saturated fat is only bad if you consume too much of it. When consumed in excess (like in the typical North American diet that’s low in vegetables, fruit and fibre, but high in refined carbs and saturated fat) it can raise blood cholesterol levels. Limit saturated fat to under 10% of calories per day.

Some recent studies show that there’s not enough evidence to link saturated fat with an increased risk of heart disease, but scientists are divided. Research is ongoing.

Found in: meat; eggs; dairy products like butter, whole milk and cheese; coconut and palm oil; processed foods.

The Ugly: 

Trans fat has a bad reputation for a very good reason – studies show that eating foods high in trans fats increases ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol in the blood, while simultaneously reducing ‘good’ HDL cholesterol. Trans fats are also linked to inflammation, which increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes

Found in: Processed foods that list “partially hydrogenated oil” or “shortening” as an ingredient; many baked goods and fast foods; stick margarine. 

Join the conversation: Which oil(s) do you use for cooking and salad dressings?

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