It is no surprise that fat has had a bad rep since diet culture became popular. However, looking at the science shows us that fat is not "black and white", in other words, not all fats are bad. For decades, researchers and nutritionists have studied the effects of fat on the body and what was found has been life-changing. It is now known that fats are essential nutrients for our well-being. In this article, we will break down the different types of fats and their benefits to the body.
Let's start by talking about cholesterol. We often hear how cholesterol can negatively affect our heart health (ie. high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases), but in reality, dietary cholesterol has very little effect on heart health for most people. Cholesterol is actually produced by the liver. Hence, our liver's production of cholesterol depends on how much cholesterol we consume. For example, if you consume cholesterol-rich food (ex: egg yolks, animal liver, fish or fish oil, animal fats or oils such as butter, shellfish, meat, cheese, and baked goods made with animal fat.) your liver will produce less cholesterol in return. Therefore, it is safe to say that dietary cholesterol has actually low blood level impacts for the majority of people.
Another "bad" fat we often hear about is saturated fats. Although there is a big controversy on how saturated fats affect our overall health, many saturated fats are different and have different effects on our health. The body's cells will treat fat differently depending on their fatty-acid chain length. Some fats have short chains (fewer than 6 carbon bonds), others medium chains (6-10 carbon bonds), others long chains (12-22 carbon bonds), and others very long chains (over 22 carbon bonds).
Some studies have even shown that long to very long chains of saturated fats (found in nuts and nut oils, as well as vegetable oils) have been associated with a decreased risk of type II diabetes.
Because fats are metabolized so differently in the body, we cannot label them as either "good" or "bad" fats. We should also be considering how we are consuming these fats. In other words, looking at not only the source of fat consumed, but the nutrient consumed as a whole. Often, saturated fats automatically get linked to dairy and meat products, which is why they often get a bad rep. When in reality, 15% of saturated fat in the American diet comes from carb-heavy desserts including cakes, cookies, pastries, and candies. Another 15% comes from “junk” foods such as burgers, fries, pizza, and chips, and another 6% from dairy-based desserts. It then makes it difficult to pinpoint the health effect of saturated fats on the body when consumed in a mix of other nutrients and high-fat saturated foods.
Diets high in saturated fats tend to be associated with weight gain and a higher caloric intake. In return, having negative health impacts on the body. However, putting the blame on saturated fats solely should not be supported, as many other factors can have a higher impact on the body (ie. weight gain and higher calorie intake). More so, it is important to note that high-fat saturated foods are safe as long as they are consumed in moderation.
Let's now review "Trans" fats. "Trans" comes from the word transformed. Trans fats are known as fats that have been industrially transformed or "hydrogenated". The most common sources of trans fats include cakes, pies, frosting, creamy fillings, fried foods, and cookies and biscuits made with shortening or margarine. They often hide in the same form as saturated fats and therefore are hard to distinguish from one another in the body. This form of fat has been associated with a higher risk of heart disease and atherosclerosis. However, some food products (like dairy and meat) contain small amounts of natural trans fats. These natural trans fats are not necessarily associated with heart disease and may even be beneficial.
Unlike saturated fats, unsaturated fats are used and stored for energy differently than saturated fats. Unsaturated fats are known to be heart healthy and should be prioritized in the diet as opposed to saturated and trans fats. Unsaturated fats are predominantly found in foods from plants, such as vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds.
Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are the two types of unsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats are found in olive and canola oils and avocados, as well as many nuts (like cashews, almonds, walnuts, pecans, and hazelnuts). Polyunsaturated fats are found primarily in vegetable and seed oils.
Omega-3s are a form of polyunsaturated fats and are important to consume as the body does not produce them on its own. Omegas are predominately found in fish, as well as flax seeds, walnuts, canola and soybeans oil. The American Heart Association suggests that 8-10 percent of daily calories should come from polyunsaturated fats, and there is evidence that eating more polyunsaturated fat—up to 15 percent of daily calories—in place of saturated fat can lower heart disease risk.
Knowing the differences in fats can help you make balanced food choices. The reality is that all fats play a different role in the body and should be consumed in moderation. Saturated and unsaturated fats can be obtained by eating a variety of foods, including nuts and seed oils, fish oils, certain vegetables (like avocados), nuts, seeds, fish, and unprocessed meat. You could benefit from avoiding partially hydrogenated oils and saturated fats found in processed meats (deli meats or any transformed meat.
If you would like to learn more about food, and fitness or have specific health goals in mind, reach out to Kelissa for your first free consultation!
B.Sc, PTS, ICF