Once upon a time, we were told that all fats were bad for us. Fats, the experts said, were responsible for all manner of health problems from obesity to heart disease to diabetes. However, we now know it’s the type of fats we eat that really matters. Bad fats increase cholesterol and raise our risk of disease, but good fats actually protect our hearts and support overall health. In fact, some good fats are essential for physical and emotional wellbeing, playing a vital role in helping us manage our moods, stay mentally alert, fight fatigue, and even control our weight.
Clearly, the answer isn’t cutting out the fat – it’s learning to make healthy choices and to replace the bad fats with the good. There are in fact four basic types of fat: the good, the fairly-good, the bad, and the extremely-bad.
The good and the fairly-good are the unsaturated fats, which provide energy, enhance the functioning of the cells and nervous system, aid in the absorption of certain vitamins, help maintain healthy hair and skin, and insulate us from the cold. Unsaturated fats, which tend to be liquid at room temperature, are divided into mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated. Mono-unsaturated fats are the good ones, as they help to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol while boosting HDL (good) cholesterol. Sources of mono-unsaturated fats are olives and olive oil, avocadoes, nuts, and pumpkin and sesame seeds. Poly-unsaturated fats – the fairly-good ones – are found in vegetable oils, walnuts and fatty fish. They are a prime source of omega-3 fatty acids, which cannot be manufactured by our bodies and are essential for lowering blood pressure, combating LDL cholesterol, fighting inflammation and protecting the brain and nervous system.
Bad fats are the saturated fats, which are normally solid at room temperature and found mainly in red meat and dairy products. They have been shown to raise total and LDL cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease, though can also be a source of vitamins and minerals.
And the ugly
The definite villains, the extremely-bad fats, are trans fats, also known as hydrogenated fats. They not only raise total and LDL cholesterol, they also lower HDL cholesterol and contribute to major health problems from heart disease to cancer. Trans fats are found mainly in commercially-prepared baked goods, snacks, fried foods, and fast foods.
The best way to keep on top of the fats in your diet is to become an informed label reader. Look for foods that are low in total fat as well as in saturated and trans (hydrogenated) fats. Be careful though: a fat-free food can still be high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, and kilojoules. Generally, keep to a diet rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables and select dairy products that are low-fat. Try to use unsaturated liquid oils, such as canola or olive, instead of butter or margarine, and bake or grill food rather than frying it. Eat fish at least twice a week, and limit your consumption of red meat, processed foods, fried foods, sweets and desserts.
It’s the mix of fats in your diet, rather than the total amount, that matters most when it comes to your health. For the average individual, total fat intake should amount to 20 to 35 percent of daily kilojoules. Saturated fats should make up no more than 10 percent and trans fats less than one percent.
So there’s no need to go no-fat, just make sure you go good-fat!