Fat is the substance in food that provides a rich texture and flavor. The foods that contain the largest amounts of fat come from animal products such as meat, dairy and eggs, plus nuts and seeds. Common examples of cooking fats include olive oil, lard, canola oil, butter, margarine and shortening.
You need to eat fats — good fats are necessary for a healthy body. But you also need to avoid some fats: the bad fats that raise your cholesterol and increase inflammation. This week, I’ll teach you about dietary fats and give you some tips on getting more good fats (and fewer bad fats) into your diet.
Good Fats vs. Bad Fats
Fats (and cholesterol — a type of fatty substance that is mostly made by your liver, but some comes from your diet) have a number of important functions, which include:
But some fats are better for your health than others. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids are generally good, and saturated fats are bad. The largest amounts of polyunsaturated fats are found in plants, such as seeds, nuts and vegetable oils. Fish and seafood are also rich in polyunsaturated fats. Olive oil, canola oil, avocado and nuts also contain monounsaturated fats, which are good for your heart and your blood vessels.
The “bad” fats include saturated fatty acids and trans-fats. People who eat large amounts of saturated fats from red meat tend to have higher cholesterol levels, more inflammation and are at a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. Trans-fats may even be worse. Most trans-fats are formed when hydrogen is forced into liquid vegetable oils to make them semi-solid. Some types of stick margarine contain large amounts of trans-fats and some highly processed foods have trans-fats. Some naturally occurring trans-fats are in dairy products; however, they don’t seem to be as detrimental as the trans-fats that are created artificially.
Healthy Fats: Monounsaturated Fats
Olive oil is a well-known source of monounsaturated fatty acid and is a main component of the Mediterranean diet, which is associated with good health. Extra virgin olive oil is a good choice because it also contains phytochemicals called polyphenols that are beneficial for your body.
Canola oil, nuts, and avocados also contain some monounsaturated fats. Canola has a light flavor so it works well for cooking and baking. Nuts are also rich in protein and help to keep you feeling full between meals. Here are some ideas for increasing the monounsaturated fats in your diet:
Healthy Fats: Polyunsaturated Fats
There are two types of polyunsaturated fats, called omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 fats are found in fish, chia seeds, flax, soy, walnuts and canola oil. Omega-6 fats are found in varying amounts in nuts, seeds, grains and vegetable oils. Most red meat is low in polyunsaturated fats, but animals raised on grass instead of corn-based feeds have meat that has more polyunsaturated fats and lower in fat in general.
You’re probably already eating plenty of the omega-6 fats, unless you’re eating a low-fat diet. The omega-6 fatty acids are common in a typical Western diet, but the omega-3 fatty acids are often deficient. Many experts believe that eating a diet with too many omega-6 fats and too few omega-3 fats increases your risk for inflammation and chronic disease. You can correct that imbalance that by choosing more omega-3 fatty acids:
Unhealthy Fats: Saturated Fats and Trans-Fats
Red meat is high in saturated fats, especially the fattier cuts of meat and ground beef. Eggs, dairy products like cream, whole milk and cheese, tropical oils and coconut oil are also high in saturated fats. These aren’t “bad foods,” but you need to watch how much you’re eating of these products. Processed lunch meats, hot dogs, sausages and bacon are very high in saturated fats (and they contain chemicals that are bad for you), and should be avoided. Here are some steps you can take to reduce your consumption of saturated fats:
Trans fats can be avoided by choosing margarine that is not made with trans-fats (read the Nutrition Facts label — it should show zero servings of trans-fat and the ingredients should not list “partially hydrogenated oils.” You should also avoid highly processed foods like potato chips, tortilla chips and cheese snacks that are fried in trans-fats, or other snack items baked with trans-fats.