GOOD FATS, BAD FATS, AND THE POWER OF OMEGA-3S
A walk down the grocery aisle will confirm our obsession with low-fat foods. We’re bombarded with supposedly guilt-free options: baked potato chips, fat-free ice cream, low-fat candies, cookies, and cakes. But while our low-fat options have exploded, so have obesity rates. Clearly, low-fat foods and diets haven’t delivered on their trim, healthy promises.
Despite what you may have been told, fat isn’t always the bad guy in the waistline wars. Bad fats, such as saturated fats and trans fats, are guilty of the unhealthy things all fats have been blamed for—weight gain, clogged arteries, and so forth. But good fats such as the monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, and omega-3s have the opposite effect.
As a matter of fact, healthy fats play a huge role in helping you manage your moods, stay on top of your mental game, fight fatigue, and even control your weight.
The answer isn’t cutting out the fat—it’s learning to make healthy choices and to replace bad fats with good ones that promote health and well-being.
To understand good and bad fats, you need to know the names of the players and some information about them. There are four major types of fats:
- monounsaturated fats
- polyunsaturated fats
- saturated fats
- trans fats
Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are known as the “good fats” because they are good for your heart, your cholesterol, and your overall health.
|Monounsaturated fat||Polyunsaturated fat|
Saturated fats and trans fats are known as the “bad fats” because they increase your risk of disease and elevate cholesterol.
Appearance-wise, saturated fats and trans fats tend to be solid at room temperature (think of butter or traditional stick margarine), while monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats tend to be liquid (think of olive or corn oil).
|Saturated fat||Trans fat|
With so many different sources of dietary fat—some good and some bad—the choices can get confusing. But the bottom line is simple: don’t go no-fat, go good fat.
If you are concerned about your weight or heart health, rather than avoiding fat in your diet, try replacing saturated fats and trans fats with good fats. This might mean replacing some of the meat you eat with beans and legumes, or using olive oil rather than butter.
- Try to eliminate trans fats from your diet. Check food labels for trans fats. Avoiding commercially-baked goods goes a long way. Also limit fast food.
- Limit your intake of saturated fats by cutting back on red meat and full-fat dairy foods. Try replacing red meat with beans, nuts, poultry, and fish whenever possible, and switching from whole milk and other full-fat dairy foods to lower fat versions.
- Eat omega-3 fats every day. Good sources include fish, walnuts, ground flax seeds, flaxseed oil, canola oil, and soybean oil.
How much fat is too much?
How much fat is too much depends on your lifestyle, your weight, your age and most importantly the state of your health. The USDA recommends that the average individual:
- Keep total fat intake to 20-35% of calories
- Limit saturated fats to less than 10% of your calories (200 calories for a 2000 calorie diet)
- Limit trans fats to 1% of calories (2 grams per day for a 2000 calorie diet)
When focusing on healthy fats, a good place to start is reducing your consumption of saturated fats. Saturated fats are mainly found in animal products such as red meat and whole milk dairy products. Poultry and fish also contain saturated fat, but less than red meat. Other sources of saturated fat include tropical vegetable oils such as coconut oil and palm oil.
Simple ways to reduce saturated fat
- Eat less red meat (beef, pork, or lamb) and more fish and chicken
- Go for lean cuts of meat, and stick to white meat, which has less saturated fat.
- Bake, broil, or grill instead of frying.
- Remove the skin from chicken and trim as much fat off of meat as possible before cooking.
- Avoid breaded meats and vegetables and deep-fried foods.
- Choose low-fat milk and lower-fat cheeses like mozzarella whenever possible; enjoy full-fat dairy in moderation.
- Use liquid vegetable oils such as olive oil or canola oil instead of lard, shortening, or butter.
- Avoid cream and cheese sauces, or have them served on the side.
|Sources of Saturated Fats||Healthier Options|
Low-fat or reduced-fat cheese
White meat chicken or turkey
Low-fat milk or fat-free creamer
Egg whites, an egg substitute (e.g. Eggbeaters), or tofu
Frozen yogurt or reduced fat ice cream
Skim or 1% milk
Plain, non-fat yogurt
A trans fat is a normal fat molecule that has been twisted and deformed during a process calledhydrogenation. During this process, liquid vegetable oil is heated and combined with hydrogen gas. Partially hydrogenating vegetable oils makes them more stable and less likely to spoil, which is very good for food manufacturers—and very bad for you.
No amount of trans fats is healthy. Trans fats contribute to major health problems, from heart disease to cancer.
Sources of trans fats
Many people think of margarine when they picture trans fats, and it’s true that some margarines are loaded with them. However, the primary source of trans fats in the Western diet comes from commercially-prepared baked goods and snack foods:
- Baked goods – cookies, crackers, cakes, muffins, pie crusts, pizza dough, and some breads like hamburger buns
- Fried foods – doughnuts, French fries, fried chicken, chicken nuggets, and hard taco shells
- Snack foods – potato, corn, and tortilla chips; candy; packaged or microwave popcorn
- Solid fats – stick margarine and semi-solid vegetable shortening
- Pre-mixed products – cake mix, pancake mix, and chocolate drink mix
Okay, so you realize you need to avoid saturated fat and trans fat… but how do you get the healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats everyone keeps talking about?
The best sources of healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, and fish.
- Cook with olive oil. Use olive oil for stovetop cooking, rather than butter, stick margarine, or lard. For baking, try canola or vegetable oil.
- Eat more avocados. Try them in sandwiches or salads or make guacamole. Along with being loaded with heart and brain-healthy fats, they make for a filling and satisfying meal.
- Reach for the nuts. You can also add nuts to vegetable dishes or use them instead of breadcrumbs on chicken or fish.
- Snack on olives. Olives are high in healthy monounsaturated fats. But unlike most other high-fat foods, they make for a low-calorie snack when eaten on their own. Try them plain or make a tapenade for dipping.
- Dress your own salad. Commercial salad dressings are often high in saturated fat or made with damaged trans fat oils. Create your own healthy dressings with high-quality, cold-pressed olive oil, flaxseed oil, or sesame oil.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat. While all types of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are good for you, omega-3 fats are proving to be especially beneficial.
We’re still learning about the many benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, but research has shown that they can:
- Prevent and reduce the symptoms of depression
- Protect against memory loss and dementia
- Reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer
- Ease arthritis, joint pain, and inflammatory skin conditions
- Support a healthy pregnancy
There are several different types of omega-3 fatty acids:
- EPA and DHA – Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) have the most research to back up their health benefits. Both are found in abundance in cold-water fatty fish.
- ALA – Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) comes from plants. Studies suggest that it’s a less potent form of omega-3 than EPA and DHA. The best sources include flaxseed, walnuts, and canola oil.
Fish: The best food source of omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fats are a type of essential fatty acid, meaning they are essential to health, but your body can’t make them. You can only get omega-3 fats from food.
The best sources are fatty fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, or sardines, or high-quality cold-water fish oil supplements. Canned albacore tuna and lake trout can also be good sources, depending on how the fish were raised and processed.
Some people avoid seafood because they worry about mercury or other possible toxins in fish. However, most experts agree that the benefits of eating two servings a week of these cold-water fatty fish outweigh the risks.
If you’re a vegetarian or you don’t like fish, you can still get your omega-3 fix by eating algae (which is high in DHA) or taking a fish oil or algae supplement.
Choosing the best omega-3 supplement
With so many omega-3 and fish oil supplements and fortified foods, making the right choice can be tricky. These guidelines can help.
- Avoid products that don’t list the source of their omega-3s. Does the package list the source of omega-3 fatty acids? If not, chances are it’s ALA (sometimes from plain old canola or soybean oil), which most Westerners already get plenty of.
- Don’t fall for fortified foods. Many fortified foods (such as margarine, eggs, and milk) claim to be high in omega-3 fatty acids, but often, the real amount of omega-3 is miniscule.
- Look for the total amount of EPA and DHA on the label. The bottle may say 1,000 milligrams of fish oil, but it’s the amount of omega-3 that matters. Read the small print. It may show only 300 mg of EPA and DHA (sometimes listed as “omega-3 fatty acids”), which means you’d have to take three capsules to get close to 1,000 milligrams of omega-3.
- Choose supplements that are mercury-free, pharmaceutical grade and molecularly distilled.Make sure the supplement contains both DHA and EPA. They may be hard to find, but supplements with higher concentrations of EPA are better.
Fish oil supplements can cause stomach upset and belching, especially when you first start taking them. To reduce these side effects, take them with food. You may also want to start with a low dose and gradually increase it, or divide the dose among your three meals.
Cholesterol is a fatty, wax-like substance that your body needs to function properly. In and of itself, cholesterol isn’t bad. But when you get too much of it, it can have a negative impact on your health.
Cholesterol comes from two sources: your body and food. Your body (specifically, the liver) produces some of the cholesterol you need naturally. But you also get cholesterol directly from any animal products you eat, such as eggs, meat, and dairy. Together, these two sources contribute to your blood cholesterol level.
Good vs. bad cholesterol
As with dietary fat, there are good and bad types of cholesterol. HDL cholesterol is the "good" kind of cholesterol found in your blood. LDL cholesterol is the "bad” kind. The key is to keep HDL levels high and LDL levels low. High levels of HDL cholesterol help protect against heart disease and stroke, while high levels of LDL cholesterol can clog arteries, increasing your risk.
Research shows that there is only a weak link between the amount of cholesterol you eat and your blood cholesterol levels. The biggest influence on your total and LDL cholesterol is the type of fats you eat—not your dietary cholesterol. So instead of counting cholesterol, simply focus on replacing bad fats with good fats.
- Monounsaturated fats lower total and bad (LDL) cholesterol levels, while increasing good cholesterol (HDL).
- Polyunsaturated fats lower triglycerides and fight inflammation.
- Saturated fats raise your blood cholesterol.
- Trans fats are even worse than saturated fats, since they not only raise your bad LDL cholesterol, but also lower the good HDL cholesterol