You've probably heard this for years - "Your body needs fat." It's true. Another truth you've probably heard as well is "The fats you eat isn't the same as the fat on your body." That's true, too! Whether you love fat or you hate it, this article will give you all you need to know on the good and the bad of this important macronutrient.
The Lowdown: Good Fats vs Bad Fats
When most of us hear the word “fat,” we instantly think of a bulging waistline, but the fat you eat is simply not the same - in any way. There are a lot of reasons why our body needs dietary fat to be healthy. I’ll get into that in a minute.
Despite the fact that our body needs fat, there are so many different types of fat out there. Many are good - but many are refined and unhealthy.
Good, healthy high quality fats are just as important to our body as the vitamins we take that also help to nourish our bodies.
Here is a quick primer on the different types of fat that are available to us in our everyday diet. Like I mentioned above, the only thing that’s more important than getting a reasonable amount of fat in our diet is the quality of fat that we eat.
There are some terrible fats in a lot of processed foods out there that wreak havoc on our bodies (1), increasing inflammation (2), obesity and high blood pressure (3) to name a few. It's really important to read labels, and stick with good, healthy fats that benefit your body - not break it down.
Different Types of Fats: Healthy and Unhealthy
First, let's breakdown the different types of fats we can eat. There are a few and some are better than others. I'll share this in four broad categories:
- Saturated Fats
- Monounsaturated Fats
- Polyunsaturated Fats
- Trans Fats
For decades, or at least since the notorious lipid hypothesis convincingly stated that all saturated fats elevated cholesterol or caused heart disease, people have associated foods like butter, egg yolks and coconut oil as bad for you. As it turns out, this simply isn't the case. There is no single cause of heart disease; many factors are at play (4).
The evidence that saturated fats are actually bad for us has been largely debunked (5). In fact, research shows saturated fats, in reasonable amounts, aren’t actually as unhealthy as we once believed (6)(7), which makes a lot more sense. At its essence, this is why.
Saturated fats are stable. Stable fats mean they don't breakdown as easily. When fats don't breakdown, they don't create harsh oxidation within our body.
Recent research has shown that saturated fats actually increase HDL (good) cholesterol (8).
Think of oxidation in our body similar to what the elements do to a car. It's rusts them out. Oxidation rusts our bodies from the inside out. Saturated fats help to protect against that.
Stability of an oil or fat is important, especially if you cook or bake a lot. Saturated fats, like coconut oil and lard (listed below) can cook to a medium-high heat. Butter, however, offers stability to a slightly lower point.
Saturated fats include:
- Coconut Oil
- Palm Oil
- Lard & Tallow
Of course, I don't think it's wise for anyone to eat exclusively saturated fats. Other fats definitely have great benefits, so it's important to get a balance.
There's very little debate anywhere that high quality monounsaturated fats are good fats for us. Monounsaturated fats are slightly less stable than their saturated counterparts, so they can't be heated to as high of a temperature as saturated fats. I certainly wouldn't roast vegetables with olive oil, for example.
The benefits of monounsaturated are far-reaching. Not only are these fats beneficial for our heart, but regular consumption of monounsaturated fats helps to reduce belly fat. (9)
The Mediterranean Diet is popularly known to be quite high in monounsaturated fats, especially olive oil. The connection between monounsaturated fats, this particular diet and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease have been well documented.(10)
Monounsaturated Fats include:
- Nuts (especially macadamia, hazelnuts, almonds)
- Avocado Oil (I really like this brand)
- Olive Oil
Canola Oil is also considered a monounsaturated fat, but is arguably the most processed monounsaturated fat known to man. It’s only been manufactured in North America for about the last 30 years and goes through extreme measures to clean and bleach before it’s put on the shelf. Approximately 90% of all canola oil is genetically modified.
Polyunsaturated fats are the least stable of all fatty acids, which means that we should avoid heating them. In other words, don’t cook or bake with polyunsaturated fats.
Many polyunsaturated fats are extremely good for us. Some are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce triglycerides and bad (LDL) cholesterol (11) and reduce inflammation. (12)
On the flip side, there are a couple of polyunsaturated fats that should be avoided as much as possible, including corn and soybean oil. Since these fats are unstable, they break down quickly. By the time they hit the store shelf, they’re rancid - opening the door for disease, including diabetes (13), heart disease, obesity (14), arthritis and a bunch of other inflammation-related conditions.
Corn and soybean oils are not only extremely processed, going through a stages of chlorination and bleaching before hitting the store shelf, but they’re also very high in omega-6 fatty acids. Without going into too much detail here, we need a healthy balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. Right now, they typical American diet is far too low on omega-3 fatty acids. The result is inflammation. Inflammation and disease go hand in hand.
Below is a short list of foods that are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
Healthy Polyunsaturated Fats include:
- Chia Seeds
- Flax Seeds/Flax Seed Oil
- Fish Oil (I use Nordic Naturals Cod Liver Oil + D)
The bottom line: Processed trans fats are all-around harmful, linked to heart attacks, and should be avoided. You won’t see “trans fats” on a food label, you will see the words “partially hydrogenated oils.”
According to the FDA, as of June 18, 2018, food manufacturers can no longer add partially hydrogenated oils to foods. However, extensions have been granted to allow for food companies to make reformulation adjustments. As of January 1, 2021, trans fats should be out of our foods system.(15)
It’s always a good idea to check food labels on processed foods until the final extension has passed. Cookies, crackers, frozen meals, frozen desserts and salad dressings are a few places trans fats are known to lurk.
How Good and Healthy Fats Helps Your Body
Now that the bases have been covered on the basics of all the fats that are out there, here are a few ways that fat can actually help you body!
Reduces Cravings: Who here has ever finished a meal, and left the kitchen only to return a half hour later opening and closing the refrigerator door? Eating good fats helps regulate you keep cravings in check. What’s more, a meal with fat added to it will take longer to break down than a fat-free meal.
Vitamin Sponges: Without god fats, your body would not be able to absorb vitamins A, D, K and E! If you’re good about taking your vitamins, but not good at adding healthy fat, these nutrients might not be as effective as you think.
Fat Burner: As contradictory as it may sound, adding healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, omega 3s (fish and flax seed oil) and many others, actually turn your metabolism on. While some people need more fat than others, we all need healthy fats. If you’re relying on residual fats found in processed foods to fuel your body, don’t be surprised if you’re having a hard time shedding excess weight.
Wrinkle Fighter: Omega 3s and extra virgin olive oil play a role in keeping our skin vibrant and supple. In fact, extra virgin olive oil is rich in oleic acid, which is great for your skin on a cellular level.
Brain Power Enhancer: Omega 3s (a polyunsaturated fat), in particular, have been shown to play a critical role in brain function. Again, omega 3 fatty acids can be found in abundance in fish oil (in supplement form), salmon, walnuts, flax seeds and flax seed oil. I highly recommend adding omega 3 fatty acids into your diet everyday - whether as a supplement, or in the foods you eat.
If you thought this article was interesting, you might also be interested in the post I wrote on the Keto Diet. Is it really that safe? Learn more!
Here are a couple more you should check out:
- 20 Healthy Foods to Buy at the Grocery Store (on a budget)
- 5 Foods You Should Avoid if You Have Belly Fat
- Kummerow, F. A. (2009). The negative effects of hydrogenated trans fats and what to do about them. Atherosclerosis,205(2), 458-465. doi:10.1016/j.atherosclerosis.2009.03.009
- Kanner, J. (2007). Dietary advanced lipid oxidation endproducts are risk factors to human health. Molecular Nutrition & Food Research, 51(9), 1094-1101. doi:10.1002/mnfr.200600303
- Ng, C., Kamisah, Y., Faizah, O., & Jaarin, K. (2012). The role of repeatedly heated soybean oil in the development of hypertension in rats: Association with vascular inflammation. International Journal of Experimental Pathology,93(5), 377-387. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2613.2012.00839.x
- Dinerstein, C. (n.d.). Lipid Hypothesis for Cardiovascular Disease is Challenged, Exposing Weakness. Retrieved from https://www.acsh.org/news/2017/08/28/lipid-hypothesis-cardiovascular-disease-challenged-exposing-weakness-11751
- Ravnskov, U., Dinicolantonio, J. J., Harcombe, Z., Kummerow, F. A., Okuyama, H., & Worm, N. (2014). The Questionable Benefits of Exchanging Saturated Fat With Polyunsaturated Fat. Mayo Clinic Proceedings,89(4), 451-453. doi:10.1016/j.mayocp.2013.11.006
- NutritonReview.org. (2017, October 22). Retrieved from https://nutritionreview.org/2017/10/global-study-reveals-how-higher-saturated-fat-diet-reduces-mortality/
- Veum, V. L., Laupsa-Borge, J., Eng, Ø, Rostrup, E., Larsen, T. H., Nordrehaug, J. E., . . . Mellgren, G. (2016). Visceral adiposity and metabolic syndrome after very high–fat and low-fat isocaloric diets: A randomized controlled trial. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 105(1), 85-99. doi:10.3945/ajcn.115.123463
- Mensink, R. P., Zock, P. L., Kester, A. D., & Katan, M. B. (2003). Effects of dietary fatty acids and carbohydrates on the ratio of serum total to HDL cholesterol and on serum lipids and apolipoproteins: A meta-analysis of 60 controlled trials. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 77(5), 1146-1155. doi:10.1093/ajcn/77.5.1146
- Paniagua, J., Sacristana, A. G., Romero, I., Vidal-Puig, A., Latre, J., Sanchez, E., . . . Perez-Jimenez, F. (2007). Monounsaturated Fat-Rich Diet Prevents Central Body Fat Distribution and Decreases Postprandial Adiponectin Expression Induced by a Carbohydrate-Rich Diet in Insulin-Resistant Subjects. Diabetes Care,30(7), 1717-1723. doi:10.2337/dc06-2220
- Gillingham, L. G., Harris-Janz, S., & Jones, P. J. (2011). Dietary Monounsaturated Fatty Acids Are Protective Against Metabolic Syndrome and Cardiovascular Disease Risk Factors. Lipids, 46(3), 209-228. doi:10.1007/s11745-010-3524-y
- Blom, W. A., Koppenol, W. P., Hiemstra, H., Stojakovic, T., Scharnagl, H., & Trautwein, E. A. (2018). A low-fat spread with added plant sterols and fish omega-3 fatty acids lowers serum triglyceride and LDL-cholesterol concentrations in individuals with modest hypercholesterolaemia and hypertriglyceridaemia. European Journal of Nutrition. doi:10.1007/s00394-018-1706-1
- Calder, P. C. (2015). Marine omega-3 fatty acids and inflammatory processes: Effects, mechanisms and clinical relevance. Biochimica Et Biophysica Acta (BBA) - Molecular and Cell Biology of Lipids, 1851(4), 469-484. doi:10.1016/j.bbalip.2014.08.010
- Santoro, N., Caprio, S., Giannini, C., Kim, G., Kursawe, R., Pierpont, B., . . . Feldstein, A. E. (2014). Oxidized Fatty Acids: A Potential Pathogenic Link Between Fatty Liver and Type 2 Diabetes in Obese Adolescents? Antioxidants & Redox Signaling, 20(2), 383-389. doi:10.1089/ars.2013.5466
- Patterson, E., Wall, R., Fitzgerald, G. F., Ross, R. P., & Stanton, C. (2012). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3335257/
- Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (n.d.). Food Additives & Ingredients - Final Determination Regarding Partially Hydrogenated Oils (Removing Trans Fat). Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/food/ingredientspackaginglabeling/foodadditivesingredients/ucm449162.htm