Understanding Healthy Versus Unhealthy Fats
We now know that fat isn’t actually evil. But which fats are best for us, and which should we limit or avoid? Here’s a quick primer on healthy versus unhealthy fats…
While extreme low-fat diets were all the rage a few decades ago, in recent years, experts have realized that fat can also be a very healthy and beneficial part of the human diet.
Avoiding dietary fats can actually have negative consequences on your health. When fat consumption declined in the 1970s and 1980s, food manufacturers compensated by adding more sugars and other refined carbohydrates to provide flavor and satiety. In fact…
Research shows that replacing fats with simple carbohydrates like refined grains and added sugars does not reduce the risk of heart disease. And foods rich in sugars can raise circulating levels of triglycerides, or blood fats. High triglyceride levels can lead to type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, and heart failure.
On the other hand, consuming appropriate amounts of healthy fats can actually reduce your risk of high cholesterol and heart disease. Fat is also important for brain health and cognitive development – especially in babies and toddlers. It protects our organs, helps regulate our body temperature, assists our bodies in creating cells and producing hormones, helps our bodies absorb and utilize vitamins and minerals, and is a concentrated source of calories and energy.
There are 4 different types of fat that we need to understand according to this article:
Different types of fat have different chemical structures that determine how the body uses them and how healthy they are. There are four main types of fat found in human foods, each of which has different physical and chemical characteristics:
- Saturated fat
- Trans fat
- Monounsaturated fat
- Polyunsaturated fat
Of the four types of fats, two are currently classified as unhealthy, and two are classified as healthy.
It’s important to note that all dietary fats contain a mix of the main types of fat; some just contain higher or lower levels of certain types.
When considering healthy versus unhealthy fats, the two types of fats that are generally considered to be unhealthy are saturated fats and trans fats. However, some experts now believe that small amounts of saturated fats from clean and natural sources may be acceptable. You should, however, avoid these fats whenever they are found in processed, prepackaged foods.*
Here is some more information about these 4 types of fat, from TheHealthy.com:
Saturated fats are so full of hydrogen molecules that they lack double bonds between their carbon molecules. This chemical makeup allows saturated fats to melt at warmer temperatures, stay solid at room temperature, and firm up or freeze at lower temperatures.
Many baked goods, prepared foods and snacks, frozen foods, and fried foods are rich in saturated fat…
There are two types of trans fats: natural and artificial.
Naturally occurring trans fats are made in the stomach of some animals, and beef, butterfat, and lamb all contain a small amount of natural trans fat.
Artificial trans fat is made in a factory by saturating liquid vegetable oils with hydrogen to make them more solid at room temperature. Hence the name you might spot in the ingredient list of foods with trans fat: partially hydrogenated oil.
Food manufacturers use trans fats because they are cheap, have a desirable texture and taste, and last a long time before spoiling.
But in 2015, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined that partially hydrogenated oils are no longer considered Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) for human consumption. And as of January 1, 2020, food manufacturers can no longer legally add trans fat to foods.
That is because there is clear evidence that eating trans fats raises bad LDL cholesterol levels and lowers levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL). This so-called “good” cholesterol helps remove LDL from the bloodstream, sending the unhealthy particles to the liver to be processed and flushed from the body.
Trans fat is one of the worst foods for your cholesterol, and research shows that consuming trans fats raises the risk of stroke, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
Fat molecules with one carbon bond that is not saturated are called monounsaturated fats. Because they’re not saturated, these fats can bond to blood cholesterol and remove it from circulation.
Monounsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature and are most commonly found in vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds. Most animal fats also contain monounsaturated fats, and you can find them in wild game, beef, pork, and chicken.
Fat molecules with more than one carbon bond that is not saturated by hydrogen are considered polyunsaturated. Because they aren’t saturated, polyunsaturated fat molecules can bind to multiple molecules of cholesterol and remove them from the bloodstream.
Like monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats are found in a lot of vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds. Many animal fats also contain small amounts of polyunsaturated fat.
It is important to realize, however, that the way in which a fat is processed also impacts its healthfulness. For example, while many vegetable oils do contain polyunsaturated fats, the processing and storage of these oils can actually deplete any valuable nutritional properties, and lead them to become oxidized and therefore harmful to your health. (You can read more about this here.)
This is why it is important to actually consider the source of a fat when determining whether it is healthy or not. For example, eating an avocado is a MUCH healthier way to consume its oil than using processed avocado oil.
Whenever possible, you should always eat the whole food that contains the fat, rather than a processed version. I.e, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and animal products from animals raised on grass, which contain much higher levels of healthy fats (monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, Omega 3’s, etc.), and lower levels of unhealthy ones. And avoid processed and packaged oils and fats whenever you can.
By choosing whole-food sources of healthy fats, and avoiding the unhealthy ones, you can reduce your risk of some of today’s most common diseases, and improve your overall health.
* Note: This article is for informational purposes only, and should not be considered health advice. You should always consult a medical professional before making any substantial dietary changes.