With an epidemic of obesity threatening a growing number of countries throughout the world, you’ve probably already heard about all of the negative aspects of dietary fat. It’s true, fat is not only more calorie-dense than other dietary components like carbohydrates and protein, but it also tends to find a hiding place in some of our more decadent foods. Therefore, we may find ourselves eating too much of it without intentionally setting out to!
But this vilifying of fats should only be taken so far. We need fat in our diet. It gives us energy, carries essential vitamins, and even keeps our skin soft and healthy. The problem with fat today isn’t only how much we eat, it’s what type we eat. For, just as we’ve learned that there is good and bad cholesterol, there are also unhealthy and healthy fats.
First, a caveat: too much fat will always make you gain weight. As mentioned above, fat is calorie-dense. So eating a lot of high-fat foods, even if they contain only healthy fats, will cause you to gain weight more quickly than eating more of other foods. It’s recommended that you get about 20-35% of your calories from fat. Going over that mark may lead to higher numbers on the scale. But as long as you stay within that range, eating healthy fats can actually be beneficial to your health.
Let’s talk about the fats you may already know are not in your best interest: saturated fats and trans fats. These fats are major contributors to obesity, heart disease, clogged arteries, high cholesterol, and some forms of cancer. Saturated and trans fats are often solids at room temperature, as opposed to healthy fats, which are liquids. Saturated fats are found in a variety of animal products, like meat, whole milk, ice cream, cheese, poultry skin, and lard.
Some believe that trans fats are even worse culprits for negatively affecting human health than saturated fats. Trans fats come in two varieties: natural and artificial. The synthesized trans fats are those that experts believe are most detrimental to health. They are found in fried foods, cookies, crackers, icing, packaged snacks, and microwave popcorn. Even relatively small amounts of trans fats can increase a person’s risk for heart disease.
Okay, so you’ve heard all this talk about unhealthy fats before, what about the fats you can eat? Unsaturated fats, which include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, fall into the category of healthy fats. These fats accomplish the dietary goals that we need fats to accomplish (energy, vitamins, etc.), but without the negative health effects caused by saturated fats and trans fats. Thus, they are effective replacements for saturated and trans fats.
But unsaturated fats do more than just stand in for saturated and trans fats. Eating unsaturated fats can actually have a beneficial effect on health. Polyunsaturated fats can lower cholesterol and levels of triglycerides in the blood, both part of the heart-damaging effects of bad fats. Monounsaturated fats are thought to reduce the risk of heart disease as well. The effects of healthy fats are of course compounded when they are used to replace unhealthy fats, as they remove the negative effects along with adding some positives. Healthy fats improve digestion and heart health, and can actually keep you from gaining weight when used to replace unhealthy fats.
So where can you find healthy fats? Monounsaturated fats are prominent in the Mediterranean Diet, the diet so well-known for its association with reduced heart disease in countries like Italy and Greece. They are found in:
- olive oil
- sunflower oil
- canola oil
- peanut butter
- sesame oil.
The best sources of polyunsaturated fats are:
- sunflower, sesame, and pumpkin seeds
- soy milk
- corn oil
- soybean oil are also great sources.
Omega-3 fatty acids are one well-known type of polyunsaturated fats found in:
- flax oil
- nut oils
Omega-3’s have been shown to have powerful heart health benefits when eaten in their natural form.
Despite what the dieting books may lead you to believe, fats are not all bad. There are some healthy fats that, when eaten in the right proportions can actually improve your health. Replace the unhealthy fats with healthy fats and not your only waistline, but also your heart, will thank you.