Are all types of fat bad for you? If not, what kind of fat does the body actually need?
For many people, fat is a bad word. The fact is, our bodies need some of it from food sources: they help us absorb vitamins and minerals (such as vitamins A, D, E and K) and keep inflammation in check; they are needed for blood clotting, muscle movement, and to build cell membranes. Research shows that eating the right types of fat can lower the risk of diabetes, heart disease and obesity, and improve cholesterol levels. But how do you tell the good types of fat from the bad?
Fats fall into two categories: saturated and unsaturated. Most types of unsaturated fat are known as cis fats. Foods that contain cis fats are healthy; these fats come in the form that is monounsaturated or polyunsaturated.
Found in: oil of olive, canola, peanut, sesame and safflower; nuts; avocados
Oils that contain monounsaturated fat are usually liquid at room temperature, but start to solidify when chilled. These fats can provide benefits to your heart when eaten in moderation. They can help reduce bad cholesterol levels in blood, lowering the risk of heart disease and stroke. Monounsaturated fats provide nutrients to help develop and maintain the body’s cells. They also contribute the antioxidant vitamin E to the diet.
Found in: fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel; oil of corn and soybean
This type of fat improves cholesterol levels and reduces the risk of heart disease. It contains beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, which are often lacking in modern diets. These are essential fats — the body can’t make them, so we must get them from food — providing the building blocks for making hormones that regulate blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls. They also bind to receptors in cells that regulate genetic function. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help prevent heart disease and stroke, may help control lupus, eczema and rheumatoid arthritis, and may play protective roles in cancer and other conditions.
Found in: margarine and non-dairy creamer; shortening (used in baked goods such as cookies, cakes and pie crusts); snacks such as chips (potato, corn and tortilla); oils used to deep fry foods such as French fries, chicken and doughnuts
Also known as trans-fatty acid, most doctors agree that this is the worst kind of fat. Not only does it raise your LDL cholesterol (the bad type), it lowers HDL (good) cholesterol, too. It also increases the risk of heart disease. While some meat and dairy products naturally contain small amounts of trans fat, it is typically formed through an industrial process of adding hydrogen to vegetable oil, which makes the oil solidify at room temperature. Check food labels for ‘partially hydrogenated vegetable oil’.
Found in: meat and dairy products such as cheese, butter and milk
Researchers from the University of California and the Harvard School of Public Health found that people who were in the highest range of daily saturated fat intake were no more likely to have heart disease or a stroke than those in the lowest range. When you eat saturated fat in moderation (10% or less of your daily calories), it has little effect on cardiovascular disease. For someone who generally consumes 2,000 calories a day, that’s 200 calories, or about 22g of saturated fat. That’s the amount in eight pats of butter, three glasses of whole milk or a Burger King Whopper with fries.
Still, cutting back on saturated fats and substituting it with unsaturated fats and wholegrains is good for your heart and arteries.
The bottom line:
It’s a good move to limit saturated fat, but there’s no need to eliminate it totally from your diet. Besides, it’s almost impossible to, because good sources of unsaturated fats (olive oil or canola oil, for example) contain some saturated fat, too.
Best Oils and Fats for Cooking
When subject to cooking heat, some oils and fats can interact with oxygen to produce free radicals and other harmful compounds. Saturated fats are less chemically reactive to heat compared to unsaturated fats. Here’s a simple guide:
- Best for high-heat cooking:
Very resistant to heat because over 90% of its fatty acids are saturated.
- Great for high-heat cooking:
Lard, tallow and bacon drippings conain varying levels of saturated fatty acids. Pasture-raised and grass-fed animals yield fat that is more saturated and excellent for cooking.
- Good for high-heat cooking:
Butter from grass-fed cows contains more vitamin K2 and other nutrients. With 68% of its fatty acids saturated, it is a good choice.
While its fatty acids are only 14% saturated, studies show that olive oil is still fairly heat resistant.