We have all heard from the news, friends and family: fat is bad for you. However; what is the difference between the good and the bad fats? Many forget that fat is an essential part of our diet and is important for our overall health. It is also important to remember the difference between the three main types of fat: Unsaturated, Saturated and Trans-Fat. We need to understand their impact on the body in order to maintain a balanced diet and to know what to look out for when reading food labels or going out to eat.
To understand why we should stick to a diet including mainly unsaturated fats along with saturated fat in moderation, we broke down the main differences of all three, where to find them and what to do to avoid the “bad.”
The Worst: Artificial Trans-Fats
There are two types of trans-fats: Naturally occurring and artificial Trans – fatty acids. Naturally occurring Trans-fat can be found in meat and dairy products and are not man-made. Artificial Trans-fats are a different story. These can be found at your local fast-food joint and are included in foods such as commercial baking goods, processed food, and margarine. The primary dietary source for this fat can be in the form, “partially hydrogenated oils,” so make sure to be on the lookout for this next time you are reading the ingredients on food labels.
Health Effects: Artificial Trans-fats raise your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and significantly lower your good (HDL) cholesterol levels (1). Therefore, these Trans-fats can increase the risk of heart disease, obesity, inflammation, and type II diabetes.
The Moderator: Saturated Fats
More commonly seen on the nutrition information label, these fats can be included in foods such as dairy products (milk, cheese and cream), deli and fresh cuts of meats (beef, pork, lamb, chicken and chicken skin), coconut, palm oil and cooking margarine. They are commonly found in cookies, brownies and cakes as well.
Health Effects: There has not been enough evidence to correlate saturated fat and heart disease due to the fact that this fatty acid raises good cholesterol and change LDL from small, dense (bad) to large LDL, which is mostly benign (3). There is evidence, however, that a high intake of saturated fat is associated with other health problems such as a decline in cognitive function, breast cancer and intestinal disruption (9).
The take away? Limiting your intake to a moderate amount; do not overconsume, but focus on eating the right foods with saturated fats, not the ones which contain a lot of sugar and processed ingredients. For example, butter contains butyric acid, which is great for gut health and virgin coconut oil may help protect you from heart disease and type II diabetes (5)(6).
The Good: Unsaturated Fats
Unsaturated fats are actually beneficial for the heart when used in moderation and should be included in your diet as a replacement of some saturated fats and all Trans-fats.
1.) Polyunsaturated Fats: These include essential fatty acids which are not made in our bodies, so we must attain them from our diet.
Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids: They can be found in oily fish such as salmon, herring, tuna and sardines, broccoli, spinach, walnuts, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, flaxseeds and vegetable oils (corn oil and soybean oil).
2.) Monounsaturated Fats: Found commonly in plant-based liquid oils such as olive oil, canola oil, and peanut oil. They are also included in foods such as avocados, peanut butter, and many nuts and seeds.
Health Effects: They help reduce bad cholesterol in your blood, help improve brain function and are associated to reducing the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases. They also contribute Vitamin E to your diet, a vitamin that many American’s lack.
5.) Fife BF (2006). Coconut oil and health. From: Adkins SW, Foale M, Samosir YM (eds). Coconut revival-new possibilities for the ‘tree of life’. Proceedings of the International Coconut Forum, Cairns, Australia, 22024 November, 2005.
6.) Zaleski, A, Banaszkiewicz A, Walkowiak J (2013). Butyric acid in irritable bowel syndrome. Prz Gastroenterol; 8(6): 350-353.