Dietary Fats 101


For years, fats have gotten a bad rap, but fats are essential for your health. Fat is a concentrated source of energy and helps your body to absorb some vitamins and minerals. They help to build cell membranes and are necessary for blood clotting and muscle movement. Some fats are better than others, so it’s important to know which types of fats you should eat and how much you need in your diet so that you can make good food choices. For overall health, good fats include unsaturated fats, bad ones include trans-fats, and saturated fats fall somewhere in between.

Trans-fats are the worst type of dietary fat and should be minimized in your diet. They are vegetable oils that have been chemically modified into a solid. They have a long shelf life and can be found in margarine, shortening, packaged cookies, chips, crackers, and baked goods. On a food label, trans-fats are usually listed as “partially hydrogenated oil.” Trans-fats have no known health benefits and increase the amount of “bad” LDL cholesterol and reduce the amount of “good” HDL cholesterol in the bloodstream. They also result in inflammation, which is linked to heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. In addition, they contribute to insulin resistance, which increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Even a small amount of trans-fats have found to be harmful to your health.

Saturated fats are common in the American diet. They are solid at room temperature and come from animal products. Dietary sources include red meat, whole milk, butter, cheese, eggs and coconut oil. A diet high in saturated fats can increase LDL cholesterol and lead to heart disease and blocked arteries. It is recommended to limit saturated fats to less than 10% of your daily caloric intake.

Unsaturated fats are good fats. They are liquid at room temperature and come from vegetables, nuts, seeds and fish. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated are two different types of unsaturated fats.

Monounsaturated fats are also called Omega-9 fatty acids. They are not considered essential in your diet because your body can make them. These types of fats are found in canola oil, peanut oil, sunflower oil, almonds, avocados and olive oil. Eating Omega-9s instead of saturated fat can help to lower your cholesterol and may reduce your risk of diabetes and heart disease. There is no recommended daily intake of monounsaturated fat, but they are a good alternative to saturated and trans-fats.

Polyunsaturated fats are considered essential fats. They cannot be made by your body, so you must get them from the foods that you eat. Eating these types of fats instead of saturated fats helps to lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. The main types of polyunsaturated fats are Omega-3 fatty acids and Omga-6 fatty acids.

There are three kinds of Omega-3 fatty acids: alpha linolenic acid (ALA), EPA, and DHA. ALA is found in plant foods such as walnuts, olive oil, chia seed, flaxseed, and in some eggs. EPA and DHA are found in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, tuna, trout, striped bass, and herring. EPA is anti-inflammatory and is associated with a reduction in heart disease, stroke, blood pressure, triglycerides, cancer and rheumatoid arthritis. It also helps to raise HDL cholesterol. DHA plays an important role in brain health. Most Americans are not getting enough Omega-3 fatty acids in their diets. The American Heart Associate recommends that you eat at least two servings of fatty fish per week in order to reduce your risk of heart disease and cancer and improve mental health. Alternatively, you could talk to your physician or dietitian about taking a fish oil supplement.

Unlike Omega-3 fatty acids, most people are receiving plenty of Omega-6 fatty acids in their diets. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in vegetable oils like corn oil, safflower oil, sesame oil, peanut oil, and soy oil. It is important to have an appropriate ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids. Too little omega-3s and too much omega-6s can result in inflammation and can be problematic for your heart, blood pressure, joints, liver and pancreas. An ideal ratio of omega 6 fatty acids to omega 3 fatty acids is about 4:1, however, most people are getting 15 to 25 times more omega-6s than omega-3s. The bottom line is that omega-6s are better for you than saturated fats, but most people are eating too much. Focus on increasing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids to reduce inflammation and to bring your ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s close to 4:1.

Knowing the difference between these types of fats can be confusing. Remember to avoid trans-fats from shortening, margarine and processed foods. Reduce your intake from saturated fats, which come from animals and are solid at room temperature. Focus on increasing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids, from fatty fish, olive oil, walnuts, chia seeds and flaxseeds.

One thought on “Dietary Fats 101

  1. Pingback: Healthy Fats: How to Eat More | Nutrition Made Simple

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