Dietary fat has made a HUGE comeback. Pretty much everyone with any sense at all agrees that fat is an essential part of a healthy diet. What still trips many people up is trying to identify what kind of fat is good for you. This article provides a quick guide to which fats are healthy and which ones need to be avoided.
What Are The Different Kinds of Fat?
Most foods don’t contain just one type of fat. They are complicated mixtures and will contain several different kinds of fat; however, people typically label them based on whichever type of fat predominates.
For example, olive oil is roughly 70 percent monounsaturated fat, 15 percent polyunsaturated fat, and 15 percent saturated fat but we typically label it as monounsaturated. Another example is peanut oil, which is 20 percent saturated fat, 32 percent polyunsaturated omega-6 fat, and 48 percent monounsaturated, but it’s often identified as a polyunsaturated fat that should be avoided due to its high concentration of omega-6 fats (more information on this below).
Saturated Fat comes primarily from animal products such as fatty cuts of meat, eggs, or dairy. Cooking fats that contain saturated fat include butter, tallow (beef fat), and lard (pig fat). Coconut and other tropical oils also contain saturated fat.
There is a widespread, deeply ingrained misconception that saturated fat is bad for you due to the disproven theory that it causes heart disease. Although it is true that a high intake of saturated fat from certain foods like butter can raise LDL cholesterol, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be uniformly classified as an unhealthy fat.
In fact, we need saturated fat because it provides cholesterol for the body to synthesize steroid hormones like testosterone. Additionally, mitochondria, which, as you’ll remember from elementary biology, are the energy factories in your body, function better when their fatty membranes are composed of saturated fat. When mitochondria have saturated fat in their membranes they are less susceptible to damage and produce fewer reactive oxygen species that bounce around and harm cells and DNA.
Another good thing about saturated fat is that it is not easily damaged by high temperatures, making it great for cooking. Oils that are high in polyunsaturated fat are easily oxidized and should not be used for cooking.
Is saturated fat a healthy fat?
Yes, when consumed in moderation and in balance with the other healthy fats described below. Eating some saturated fat at every meal is not a bad thing, however, you don’t want it to make up the bulk of your calories.
Best Saturated Fat Foods: Eggs, Whole Fat Dairy (Cheese & Yogurt), Meat, Butter, Coconut Oil.
Monounsaturated Fat comes from plants. Fruits (olives and avocados), nuts, and some seeds all contain monounsaturated fat.
Pretty much everyone agrees that monounsaturated fat is healthy. These fats have many beneficial effects, improving function of mitochondria and insulin action, while also increasing glycemic control for lower diabetes risk. Many monounsaturated fats are also packed with antioxidants that counter free radical damage and lower inflammation in the body. They have anti-cancer effects and can improve joint function by lowering inflammation in the joints.
Best Monounsaturated Fat Foods: Avocado, Olives & Olive Oil, Almonds, Brazil Nuts, Cashews, Hazelnuts, Macadamia Nuts, Sesame Seeds, Cacao Nibs.
Polyunsaturated Fat is made up of omega-3 and omega-6 fats. There are three kinds of omega-3 fat: ALA found in flax oil and some other seeds and nuts, and EPA and DHA, found in fish. Grass-fed dairy and meat also contain some omega-3 fat. Vegetarian sources of EPA and DHA are algae and some wild green plants like purslane.
Omega-6 fat are found in seeds, some nuts, and grain-fed meat and dairy. There are two types of omega-6 fat, LA (found in seeds and nuts) and AA (in animal products). People on a Western diet consume most their omega-6 fat from grain-fed animal products and seed oils, such as corn, sunflower, safflower, cottonseed, and soy bean oil.
Everyone agrees that omega-3 fat is healthy. EPA and DHA are the most favored fats, having numerous beneficial effects including improved blood vessel function, better insulin sensitivity, and less inflammation. They are also linked to better mood, improved appetite regulation, and better ability to handle stress. EPA and DHA also appear to be protective against obesity.
ALA is also associated with many health benefits and it can be turned into EPA and DHA in the body, however the conversion rate is low, making it critical that everyone include EPA and DHA-containing foods in their diet.
Omega-6 fats can be confusing. They are essential for optimal health; however, if consumed in too high a quantity, they can be harmful. Studies show that humans evolved eating a diet with close to a 1-to-1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fat. Due to a dramatic change in our food supply over the past 50 years, this ratio has gotten skewed closer to 20-to-1 of omega-6 to omega-3 fat.
This is a problem because omega-3 and omega-6 fat compete for certain enzymes that allow them to function in the body. With too much omega-6 fat, the omega-3 fat can’t have its protective effect. Then there’s the fact that most Westerners get almost zero omega-3 fat in their diet.
The solution is to increase foods containing omega-3 fat and drastically reduce those that are high in omega-6 fat. Do this by eating wild caught fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines) a few times a week. Always choose pasture-raised meat, eggs, and dairy. Avoid processed foods and conventional meat and dairy because these foods are sky high in omega-6 fats. Specifically, watch out for oils containing corn, sunflower, soybean, and cottonseed oil.
When it comes to seeds and nuts high in polyunsaturated fat, it’s reasonable to include these foods in your diet in whole form. Seeds and nuts provide fiber, protein, and are often packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. For example, a sprinkle of pumpkin seeds on a salad or a small handful of walnuts on yogurt is a great way to get omega fats in nutrient-rich foods
Best Polyunsaturated Fat Foods: Salmon, Mackerel, Sardines, Walnuts, Pumpkin Seeds, Chia Seeds, Flax Seeds.