Let’s face it, fat gets a bad rap and most of us think that we should be avoiding fat at all costs. We fail to recognize that fat has redeeming qualities and is crucial to our diet and well-being. But not all fat is created equal and it may seem difficult to disseminate the abundance of information on fat.
First, it is important to know which fats you should be consuming and which fats you should avoid. Fat is essential to good health and each fat has a different effect on our body and more importantly on our blood cholesterol levels, which include LDL and HDL levels. Fat is necessary to keep our body temperature tempered, pad our organs from shock and as a reserve for times when we need extra calories – fat is our storehouse. Fat is actually an excellent source for energy and aids in the transportation of vital fat-soluble vitamins and nutrients.
However, most Americans consume too much fat, predominantly the unhealthier forms of fat. Unfortunately, many try extremely low-fat diets, which lead to deficiencies. These deficiencies can lead to scaly, dried skin and thinning hair.
“Choosing the right types of dietary fats to consume is one of the most important factors in reducing the risk of developing heart disease,” says Tufts University researcher, Alice Lichtenstein. And the amount of fat we need is actually quite low at about 10 or 20 grams per day. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommend that adults get 20-35 percent of their calories from fats. At a minimum, we need at least 10 percent of our calories to come from fat. Saturated fat should compose less than 10 percent of overall calories.
There are four types of fat: two are healthy and two should be consumed in minimal amounts. The two healthy forms of fat are unsaturated (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated) and the two bad forms in excess are saturated fats and trans fats, which include cholesterol. Bad fats, which are often hidden in foods, can cause weight gain, obesity, heart disease and stroke.
Let’s look at the effects each of these fats has on the body to better understand which fats to consume and which to avoid.
Saturated Fats (limit these): There are two types of “bad” fat — saturated fat and trans fatty acids that should be consumed sparingly. Too much saturated fat and trans fat can lead to diabetes and increase your LDL cholesterol levels, the bad form of cholesterol. These fats also clog arteries and increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Saturated fats are found in all animal products such as meat and dairy as well as most seafood. Some plant foods contain saturated fat such as coconut oil, but both animal and vegetable saturated fat has the same effect on the body.
Trans fat are definitely the evil stepsister to saturated fats in general — their reputation precedes them. There are two types of trans fats, the naturally occurring type found in animal products and dairy, and the artificial type produced synthetically and found in hardened oils, which become “partially” hydrogenated fats. Margarine is a perfect example.
Unsaturated Fats (get more of these): Most unsaturated fats are good for you and are technically a saturated fat in liquid form. There are two types of unsaturated fat, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. Most oils are monounsaturated. Both mono- and polyunsaturated fats can help lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease.
There are two types of polyunsaturated fats — omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are arguably the best fat we can consume — they fight inflammation, help control blood clotting and lower blood pressure and triglycerides. Omega-3 is considered an essential fat to our diet and we need to get them from food as our bodies don’t produce them. Fatty fish such as salmon, trout and mackerel are a good source of omega-3 as well as walnuts and flaxseed. The American Heart Association recommends eating two servings of fatty fish each week.
What is also important to remember with all fats is that too many calories regardless of where they come from will lead to weight gain and obesity.