It seems everyone has a different view of fat. In case this is not yours, let me just say, fat is not the enemy!  Yes, your body can make its own fat, but dietary fat is essential for the production of tissues and biochemicals. Some fats, like Omega-3 fatty acids, are even essential because our bodies can’t make them. The trick is to understand the different types of fat and make educated decisions in what you allow to enter your body.

The stigma behind fat often arises from one of its most beneficial qualities: it packs a lot of punch. Gram for gram, fats have more than twice the energy potential as either proteins or carbohydrates. This makes them dietary superstars. But if portion sizes are out of control, they can quickly lead to an overdose of caloric intake.

In the world of fats, there are four main types: monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, saturated fat, and trans-fat. The simple breakdown is that two are good, and two are bad. Unsaturated fats, including monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat, are good. Saturated and trans-fat are bad. In addition to their effects on appearance, the naughty and nice labels identify their effects on overall health. Primarily, fats play a significant role in the presence of another lipid, cholesterol, which directly affects heart health.

Quick Insight Into Cholesterol

Like fat, there are good and bad types of cholesterol. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which is known at bad cholesterol, leads to plaque formation within artery walls. This can cause heart attacks and strokes. High-density lipoprotein (HDL), known as good cholesterol, counteracts LDL by removing plaque buildup. Since HDL reduces LDL, a little goes a long way. This is where fats come in; the consumption of healthy fats can significantly increase HDL. Just remember moderation is key.

The Four Types

Healthy Fats: Monunsaturated Fat and Polyunsaturated Fat

  • Monounsaturated fats are found in a variety of foods and oils. What makes them healthy you ask? Monounsaturated fats can improve cholesterol and insulin levels, as well as improve blood sugar control. As a result, they decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease and can be helpful for type 2 diabetes.
    Sources: olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil, avocadoes, poultry, nuts and seeds
  • Polyunsaturated fats are most commonly found in plant-based foods and oils. If I had to pick a favorite, these would be it. Polyunsaturated fats improves blood cholesterol levels, are helpful for type 2 diabetes, can lower blood pressure levels, decrease the risk of coronary artery disease, and may even protect against irregular heartbeat. This category also encompasses Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, which are known as essential fatty acids because our bodies don’t make them on their own. Omega-3 fatty acids are all-stars. They fight inflammation, help control blood clotting, and lower blood pressure and triglycerides. This is in addition to all the healthy benefits of polyunsaturated fats in general.
    Sources: vegetable oils (safflower, corn, sunflower, soy, cottonseed), nut oils, poultry, nuts and seeds
    Omega-3 Fatty Acid Sources: fatty, cold-water fish (albacore tuna, salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines), ground flaxseed, flax oil, walnuts

Unhealthy Fats: Saturated Fat and Trans-Fat

  • Saturated fats come mainly from animal sources and can increase the risk of health problems when consumed in excess. Saturated fats raise total cholesterol, and most significantly, raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which is the bad cholesterol. A result of high LDL levels is increased risk of cardiovascular disease. High LDL levels may also be linked with type 2 diabetes.
    Sources: cheese, grain-based desserts, animal products, lard, butter, tropical oils (coconut, palm)
  • Trans-fats naturally occur in some foods, but they are mostly made during food processing because they are easier to cook with and less likely to spoil than naturally occurring oils. Trans fats are by far the winner of my least favorite, and synthetic trans fats are essentially bad news. They not only increase LDL cholesterol levels, but they also reduce HDL, which is the good cholesterol. So essentially, trans fats increase the risk of plague build up and reduce the body’s defensive mechanism to break it down, significantly increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
    Sources: margarines, snack foods, prepared desserts

Tips for Incorporating Healthy Fat & Avoiding Unhealthy Fat

Start with understanding fat’s overall place in your dietary needs. The recommended fat intake is 20% to 35% of your daily calories. If you are on a 2,000 calorie diet, that is somewhere between 45 and 80 grams a day. That means you want to strive for at least 20% of your caloric intake to be fat! It doesn’t mean that you want to consume as little fat as possible without exceeding 35%. You need to consult with your physician to determine any individual variations based on medical history, but in general, fat in moderation is good.

That said, this is where healthy versus unhealthy fats come in. The ratio of healthy to unhealthy fat within that daily allotment should be as favorable as possible. One rule of thumb to follow is that saturated fat intake should not exceed 10%. As the wording suggests, that means saturated fat intake is a situation where you do want to consume as little as possible without exceeding 10% of you daily caloric intake. In a 2,000 calorie diet, that is about 20 grams. Trans-fat intake should be no more than 1% of total caloric intake. In a 2,000 calorie diet, that is about 2 grams! With trans-fat, you want to strive for zero. Manufactures can say a product is trans-fat free if it contains less than half a gram per serving. When you want to limit trans-fat to 1% of your caloric intake, ‘trans-fat free’ foods can add up. The best tip for avoiding trans-fat is to read the ingredient listings and avoid products with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil among the first ingredients.

Suggestions for Improving Your Healthy to Unhealthy Fat Ratio:

  • Sauté with olive oil instead of butter
  • Use egg substitutes instead of whole eggs
  • Sprinkle slivered nuts or seeds instead of bacon bits or croutons
  • Snack on a small handful of nuts rather than potato chips or processed crackers
  • Try non-hydrogenated peanut butter or other non-hydrogenated nut butter spreads
  • Add slices of avocado, rather than cheese, to your sandwich
  • Have fish high in omega -3 fatty acids instead of meat (see sources above)
  • Select low-fat or fat-free dairy products
  • Trade sour cream for hummus or guacamole
  • Use ground turkey instead of beef