By Dr. Hilary Booth
Many of us reach for low-fat options as a way of eating well and maintaining a healthy body weight. However, fats are an extremely important part of a healthy diet that we often shy away from because we don’t want to get fat. However, research is showing that eating fat doesn’t make you fat! What does make you gain weight is eating more calories than you burn off in a day.
We need approximately 25-35% of our diet to come from fats. Fat is an excellent fuel source, but it’s also needed to maintain our nervous system and brain function, to absorb certain vitamins, and to produce hormones. It’s also the main component of the membranes of every single cell in the body.
Now we know that we definitely need fats. So now, the question becomes which types of fats should we be eating?
Saturated fats are what many people have come to call “bad fats”. These mostly come from animal products, including cream, cheese, butter, lard, and meats, but also come from coconut oil, eggs, chocolate, and nuts. Saturated fats have gotten a bad reputation, and people associate the words “saturated fat” with heart disease, however recent studies have actually found no link between saturated fat and heart disease or death from heart disease. So what’s the bottom line about saturated fats? Eat them in moderation. Anyone on a diet strictly made up of beef and butter isn’t going to be healthy, but research shows that incorporating coconut oil, eggs, and meat into a balanced diet is healthy.
a) Trans-unsaturated fats
Trans unsaturated fats are the real, true, “bad fats”. Trans fat is made when a normal fat molecule is chemically altered through a process called hydrogenation. This process makes oils more stable and less likely to spoil, so it’s good for manufacturers. However, the tradeoff is that it’s awful for our bodies. The human body can’t recognize and process this man-made fat, and as a result it causes increased cholesterol, heart disease, inflammation, and cancer.
Watch out for trans fats in margarine, fried foods, potato chips, microwave popcorn, and many pre-made baked goods. Read nutrition labels and watch out for the words “partially hydrogenated oil”. Trans fats should be avoided as much as possible.
b) Cis-unsaturated fats: Omega 3, 6 and 9
The “cis” form of unsaturated fats are the “good fats”. These are the fats that our body needs, and they have major health benefits for us. The common forms are omega 3, 6, and 9.
Omega 3 fatty acids are the most talked about, and for good reason! They improve memory and brain function, decrease risks of heart disease and cancer, and fight depression. Best of all, they are anti-inflammatory. Rich food sources of omega 3’s include flax, hemp, chia, salmon and sardines. Most people don’t get enough of these in their diets, which is why taking fish oil supplements can be an extremely beneficial addition to your daily routine.
Omega 6 fatty acids are more common in most peoples’ diets, and are found in poultry, nuts, cereals, bread, and sunflower oil. These are generally good fats but the key is to make sure that the amount of omega 3’s in your diet outweigh the amount of omega 6’s. This is because omega 6’s tend to promote an inflammatory state.
Omega 9 fatty acids are found in animal fat and vegetable oil, and are not considered essential fatty acids. This means that your body has the ability to make omega 9’s using omega 3’s and 6’s as building blocks, so they’re less important to include in the diet.
The Bottom Line
Saturated fats aren’t as bad as we originally thought, and should be eaten in moderation. Trans unsaturated fats should be avoided as much as possible. Focus on eating more omega 3’s than omega 6’s in your diet for cancer-fighting, memory-boosting, heart strengthening and anti-inflammatory effects.