We have a love-hate relationship with fat. We love butter, cheese, and other riches. Then came the 90s when low-fat dieting was taken to the extremes. Enter coconut oil and a whole lotta confusion! But just like any good relationship, it’s important to keep things in perspective: we need fats to survive—and actually, to thrive. But some fats are better than others—and just as with other foods, if you overdo them, they can lead to weight gain, which is clearly not ideal.
Fat has had a bad rap for almost thirty years. A story by NPR last year notes that in the late 1970s the government established the first set of dietary guidelines, which recommended a low-fat, high carb diet, partly to combat heart disease, among other health concerns. The food industry responded by reducing fat in many foods, but in order to maintain great taste, they upped the sugar content. What we were left with was a nation that was eating far too many fat-free baked goods rather than the fat-free fruits and veggies that were supposed to be the mainstay of a low-fat eating plan. I call this the Snackwell era.
The reality is, as we’ve said, we thrive on certain fats in our diet. They enhance nutrient absorption, supply energy, help keep your skin healthy, and can even help with weight management. Really! The fine print: Pick foods with better-for-you fats—the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats detailed below. The second thing—and this is key—is to swap your less healthy saturated fats with high-fiber carbs, like fruits, vegetables, legumes, or whole grains or a healthier fat. During the Snackwell era, fat replacement tended to involve refined carbs (namely, sugar and white flour), which experts unanimously agree are unhealthy.
Monosaturated fat: Bring out the olive oil, avocados, and canola oil! Studies have found that eating diets rich in MUFAs can lower your risk of chronic, preventable conditions, like heart disease. MUFAs are also plentiful in most nuts and seeds.
Polyunsaturated fat: You’ve probably heard of omega-3 fatty acids? They are a type of polyunsaturated fat found in fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, trout, mackerel, sardines and herring. These essential fats are also found in plant sources like flax, chia, and hemp. Include these foods in your diet and you may be rewarded down the line—to the tune of reducing your blood pressure, raising your so-called “good” HDL cholesterol, and reducing your risk of heart disease and stroke. The emphasis is on food here—supplements have not been shown to be as helpful.
Note that Omega-6’s also fall into the PUFA category. These are plentiful in corn, sunflower, and safflower oils.
Saturated fat: If you’re confused about saturated fat, you aren’t alone! With recent headlines declaring that butter is back, it’s hardly surprising that people don’t have their fat facts straight. Sat fat is the type of fat that is mainly from animal sources, including beef, poultry (particularly dark meat and skin), butter, cream, whole milk, and cheese. It’s also in palm oil and coconut oil. Saturated fats have been found to raise your unhealthy LDL cholesterol and increase your risk of heart disease. Here’s where it gets tricky. There are different types of fatty acids under the umbrella of saturated fats and some, like those in coconut oil, may be neutral. Still, as often as possible, health experts recommend replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats or high-fiber, wholesome carbs.
Trans fat: Trans fat can be naturally occurring or artificially made, by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil to make it more solid. You may see them in ingredient lists as “partially hydrogenated oils.” There is no question—this is the worst fat of all. It not only raises your unhealthy LDL cholesterol but also lowers your healthy HDL cholesterol. Double. Whammy. It’s pretty easy to avoid trans fats these days as the FDA determined it was unsafe in 2013, so most manufacturers have already phased it out of their foods. You may still see it in certain baked goods, frosting, and sprinkles.
- Eat lean cuts of meat and poultry, without skin, and use healthful oils like olive oil and canola oil when cooking.
- Enjoy nuts, avocados, and seeds. These foods are naturally healthy and delicious—they bring taste, texture, and satisfaction.
- When it comes to so-so fats—the sat fats in dairy and coconut oil, quantity is key. If you’re drinking a latte, go with 1% milk or fat-free varieties. If you’re dabbing some Greek yogurt on fruit and you like the lusciousness of a full-fat version, go ahead and enjoy it. Cook with coconut oil when you want to incorporate its tropical flavour into dishes, but alternate with other oils.
What do you know about the different types of fats? Fill us in in the comments below!
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