The word “fat” has a tough time in the diet world.
A lot of people recoil at the mere mention of “fat”, and some food products still want nothing to do with the nutrient (even going so far as to shouting ZERO FAT from their rooftops!) Poor fat. The good news is that people are truly starting to embrace the idea that fat is actually our friend. Healthy fats like those found in avocado, salmon, and nuts can help you stay fit, lower your blood cholesterol, decrease your risk for heart disease, and even boost your brain power. They are essential for our bodies to stay energized and run optimally. That’s why you’ll probably hear us drop sentences like “yummy, heart-healthy fats” on our menu. We promise we’re not crazy. And yes, we do care about our physique.
According to a study from the Annals of Internal Medicine, participants whose diets lowered carb intake and increased fat (yes, even the fat in butter and cheese), as opposed to avoiding fat, were fitter, with less inflammation, better cholesterol levels, and a lower risk for heart disease. It’s increasingly important to be able to recognize that it’s not about whether you eat or don’t eat fats, but what KIND of fats you eat. Here’s our breakdown on the four kinds you should know.
#1 Trans Fats | Not good.
Found in: fried foods, baked goods, frozen pizzas, potato chips and other pre-packaged snacks, margarine.
Bad, bad, bad. Trans fats are the fat you should do your best to avoid. While they’re found at low levels naturally in meat and dairy, artificial trans fats (also known as man-made “franken fat”) are often added to processed foods to make them shelf-stable through a substance called hydrogenated oils. (Hence why you should avoid products that have “hydrogenated vegetable oil” in their ingredients list.) It’s well-established that foods with high trans fats can up your bad cholesterol and lead to inflammation, heart disease, diabetes, and weight gain.
Thankfully, the FDA has begun to phase out trans fats, and anticipates the food market will be 100% trans fat free by 2018. But the franken fat might still hide in some foods, including pastries, deli sandwiches and spreads, bar food, coffee creamers, and some baking ingredients.
#2 Monounsaturated Fats | YUM.
Found in: Avocado, nuts (almonds, cashews, peanuts, etc.) and seeds, nut butter, olives, olive oil, dark chocolate.
These are plant-based fats also known by the fun name of MUFA’s (Monounsaturated fatty acids). Studies show these healthy fats improve your heart health by upping your good cholesterol (HDL) and lowering your bad cholesterol (LDL), along with preventing plaque buildup in your arteries. Another great benefit? Research suggests they can help you lose weight. Foods high in MUFA’s keep you full longer than if you eat saturated fats (as this study shows), which prevents over-eating. Meanwhile, another study found that eating monounsaturated fats helped participants lose weight in their mid-sections (that’s your belly.)
#3 Polyunsaturated Fats | Keep eating.
Found in: Fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, trout, tuna), vegetable oils, walnuts, flax seed, sunflower seeds, tofu
Polyunsaturated fats are essential for normal body functions – they provide nutrients that your body needs but doesn’t produce itself. These essential fats not only reduce LDL cholesterol levels in your blood (thus lowering your risk of heart disease) – they also help maintain your cells and nerve function. Our favorite kind of fat, omega- 3 fatty acids, are a polyunsaturated fat just like omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3’s have their own long list of health benefits, including improved mood, reduced symptoms of depression, less inflammation, sharper cognitive skills (like memory and learning), and, of course, a healthier heart.
#4 Saturated Fats | Don’t shy away from it!
Found in: red meat, cheese and other dairy products, butter, coconut oil
Saturated fat, which comes mainly from animals, is a misunderstood little guy. In the past few decades (and even today), saturated fat has been thought to clog arteries, boost cholesterol levels, lead to heart disease, and, well, make you fat. But in recent years, research has steadily started to debunk the link between saturated fat and heart disease, arguing that there is no link at all. The founding study that kickstarted the anti-saturated fat movement, published in the 1970s, was severely flawed (it did not account for outside factors including sugar, smoking, and exercise)! Nevertheless, recommendations to reduce saturated fat developed… even though waistlines and heart disease rates continued to grow! Many studies now show that the link between saturated fat and heart disease is poor at best. Certain products that are considered “saturated”, like butter, have been embraced by many dietitians and health nuts (us, included) as good for our bodies. They have been linked to a healthier liver, stronger immunity, and even better brain health. Of course, that still means there are good and bad kinds of saturated fat. Processed meat like packaged hot dogs will always be harder on your health than, say, the occasional steak. (This study found that there was no link between heart disease and red meat, but there was a link between heart disease and processed meats.) So again, it’s always important to consider what kind of fat and food you’re eating. For an in-depth read on how the saturated myth evolved, check out this great article from our friends at Greatist.
Even more resources on fats to check out:
- The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat, & Cheese Belong In A Healthy Diet by Nina Teicholz
- Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes
- “The Definitive Guide to Fats” – Mark’s Daily Apple
- The Truth About Fats – Harvard Medical School Health Publications
- The Truth About Saturated Fats – Men’s Journal
- The Fear of Saturated Fat and Cholesterol – Paleoleap