The Truth About Fats: Good Fats vs. Bad Fats

Updated on July 29th, 2020
good fats vs bad fats

The term fat often is looked down upon negatively, but the body needs certain healthy fats to function perfectly. For instance, fats are necessary to insulate nerves, construct cell membranes, and ensure that many vitamins, including D, A, K, and E, function the way they work.

For many decades, all the fat was vilified and was avoided as much as possible by many people planning to shed weight. But this is not required, and limiting fat too much can even pose adverse effects to your health. Fats are a crucial part of a healthy diet, and there are multiple healthy options.

There are multiple types of fat — some healthy for us and some unhealthy. Scientific research about the benefits and health risks of fats is continually evolving. The current guidance and evidence suggest we should focus our diet around-avoiding unhealthy fats and consuming healthy fats.

Types of Fats:

Dietary fats come in 3 categories(1)

1. Unsaturated Fats

These are the good type of fats you should take the maximum as part of a heart-friendly diet. There are two types of unsaturated fats: 

i) Monounsaturated

Foods rich in monounsaturated fats include hazelnuts, pecans, sesame seeds, almonds, olive oil, pumpkin seeds, canola peanut oil. 

ii) Polyunsaturated

Foods rich in polyunsaturated fats include flaxseed oil fish, flaxseeds, soybean oil, corn oil, and sunflower oil. 

Omega-3 fatty acids — present in some types of fish, such as herring and salmon and in-plant products, such as canola oil, soybean oil, flaxseed, and walnuts — are a kind of polyunsaturated fat that is believed to be specifically useful for the heart.

[Also Read: Good Fats For Weight Loss]

2. Saturated Fats

Animals are the major source of saturated fats, with high levels found in full-fat dairy products, beef and pork, and medium levels in eggs and poultry. Some vegetable oils, like palm oil, also have high concentrations of saturated fats.

Saturated fats are required for the body — but in small quantities. The U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) (Dietary Guidelines for Americans) suggest that less than ten percent of your daily calories should come from saturated fats, preferably from fat-free or low-fat dairy products and lean poultry.

For people who take 2,000 calories a day, only twenty grams at the maximum should be taken from saturated fat.

[Also Read: How Many Calories Per Day Should You Eat]

3. Trans Fats

You may like these fats the most but shouldn’t take. Most of these trans fats are liquid at room temperature. To make them solid, food manufacturers add excess hydrogen, transforming it hydrogenated or trans fatty acids. The maximum levels of trans fats are found in animal products, margarine, and baked goods.

Effects of Unhealthy Fats on the Heart

Trans fats are the worst and most harmful type of fats for the blood vessels, heart, and holistic health. 

Consuming Trans Fats:

  • It lowers good HDL levels of cholesterol and raises bad LDL levels of cholesterol. 
  • It aggravates the chances of stroke and heart disease.
  • It is linked with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes and contributes to insulin resistance. 
  • In 2015, the U.S. FDA (Food and Drug Administration) banned using PHOs (partially hydrogenated oils), the important source of artificial trans fats, from processed foods. 
  • This policy led to the near elimination of artificial trans fats in the U.S. food supply by 2018.
  • But trans fats are not entirely gone from foods, as they are found naturally in small amounts in meats and edible oils and some dairy products.

Eating a diet rich in saturated fats — say a massive steak with potato salad topped with mayo and eggs — can spike up total cholesterol and tip the balance to more bad cholesterol or LDL. This, in turn, can lead blood vessels to shrink and aggravate artery blockages.

Saturated fats also cause triglycerides (made from extra calories and stored in fat cells) to spike up. High triglyceride levels increase the risk of diabetes, heart problems, and high blood pressure.

The impact of saturated fats on the body has been the source of some controversy, as some studies have questioned just how dangerous saturated fats are.

For instance, a meta-analysis published in the AJCN (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition) observed: There is inadequate evidence from prospective epidemiologic studies to confirm that dietary saturated fat is linked with an increased risk of stroke, coronary heart disease [CHD], or cardiovascular disease [CVD].

A highly hyped 2014 study published in the AIM (Annals of Internal Medicine) observed that diets high in saturated fat do not raise heart disease risk.

But that controversial study was met with harsh criticism. American nutritional guidelines still suggest limiting the number of saturated fats taken daily to no more than ten percent of your daily calories. The AHA (American Heart Association) takes it even further and suggests that saturated fat makes up not more than five to six percent of your daily calories.

The overall recommendation is that limiting saturated fats and replacing them with good fats, particularly polyunsaturated fats, lowers the risk of heart disease and improves good cholesterol.

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There is always going to be research on both sides of a debate; however, the current studies suggest that saturated fat is not good for your health.

Replace Bad Fats With Good Fats

Instead of saturated fat from animal sources, taking healthy fat from plant sources can reduce triglyceride levels and LDL and cardiovascular disease risk.

A review published in June 2015 in the CDSR (Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews) found that replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats can minimize your heart disease risk.

There are simple ways to make these swaps. Instead of cooking your food in butter, choose olive oil instead—top a sandwich or salad with fresh avocado instead of cheese or bacon. Or choose almond butter or peanut to top whole-grain toast or a whole-wheat bagel, in place of cream cheese or butter.

Eating Fish for a Healthy Heart

Fish is a heart-friendly source of dietary protein high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in saturated fat. The AHA (American Heart Association) recommends eating two servings of fish per week. A serving is equivalent to ¾ cup of flaked fish or 3.5 ounces of cooked fish. This can help minimize the risk of heart disease.

The American Heart Association warns that some fish types may be high in environmental pollutants like mercury. Therefore, it suggests that pregnant women and children skip fish types that are thought to have the highest mercury levels (swordfish, king mackerel, shark, tilefish).

The American Heart Association also suggests varying the kinds of fish you eat to reduce these environmental contaminants’ effects.

But for middle-aged men and postmenopausal women, the benefits of consuming fish far outweigh the risk, as long as you stick by the guidelines established by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the EPA.

Bottom Line

The bottom line is that you should include healthy fat in your diet, and it does matter what kind of fat you take. For heart health, reduce the intake of saturated fat, skip trans fat, and make sure the bulk of the fat you eat is good fat from nuts, fish, and healthy oils.

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