For the last few decades fat has been considered the enemy of good health. It’s been thought that fats cause weight gain, increase your cholesterol levels and clog your arteries. However, when you compare healthy vs. unhealthy fats you realize the truth isn’t that simple. There are three main kinds of fat and they have very different effects on your body and health. Read on to discover the difference between saturated, unsaturated and trans fats.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Fats
Trans fats are the baddies of the fat world. For the most part, trans fats are man made. They do occur naturally in some animal products such as milk and cheese. However, they occur in such small quantities that eating these foods won’t harm your health.
Trans fats became a part of our food supply in an unusual way. We can thank Proctor and Gamble, the cleaning and personal hygiene company for introducing trans fats. P&G created Crisco in 1911. (1) The hydrogenated oils in Crisco were originally meant to be used in the manufacturing of soap. Crisco was the unintended result.
Partially hydrogenated oils like the ones found in Crisco, margarine and packaged goods were very popular for a while because they made a great replacement for butter and lard. As more time went on it was discovered that trans fats were even worse than their natural counterparts. High consumptions of trans fats can lead to heart disease, narrowing of your arteries and even strokes. This is because trans fats raise your LDL cholesterol levels (the bad kind) while lowering your good HDL cholesterol levels. (2) Trans fats are also bad for the health of your brain because they can change the way your brain cells communicate with one another. (3)
If trans fats were introduced into our diet as a healthy replacement for saturated fats, does that mean saturated fats are unhealthy? Not exactly. Saturated fats have gotten a bad name; however, recent scientific research is showing that they may not be as bad as we once thought. A meta-study of over 20 older studies found that there’s no conclusive link between saturated fats and heart disease. (4) However, it’s best to limit your saturated fat consumption to 10% or less of your total daily calories. (5)
Saturated fats can be found in a variety of animal products. Red meat, butter, lard, eggs, coconut oil and full fat dairy all contain saturated fat. Instead of avoiding these foods completely it’s best to eat moderate portions. As a replacement for saturated fats you should try to eat a variety of healthy, unsaturated fats.
So, if trans fats are bad for your health and saturated fats should be consumed in moderation then where does that leave unsaturated fats? Unsaturated fats are the type of fats that should make up the majority of your fat consumption. Contrary to popular opinion, eating fat doesn’t make you fat (if it’s the right kind). In fact, your body needs some amount of healthy fats in order to function.
There are two types of unsaturated fats: polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. The scientific difference between the two of them comes down to the number of double bonds between their carbon atoms. Thankfully, you don’t need to understand the science to get the benefits these two types of fats offer. Both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are liquids at room temperature. And both types of fat offer health benefits. (6)
Health Benefits of Unsaturated fats
When comparing healthy vs. unhealthy fats, how they effect your heart health is one of the biggest things that separates them. A diet rich in unsaturated fats (while remaining low in trans and saturated fats) shows promise in lowering the levels of LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) in your body while increasing the amount of the good, HDL cholesterol. This can help balance your cholesterol levels while keeping your triglyceride levels in check. (7) When your cholesterol levels are within a healthy range it prevents your arteries from becoming clogged. This reduces your risk of heart disease and stroke. Unsaturated fats can also reduce the amount of inflammation in your body while stabilizing your heart’s natural rhythm. (8)
You’ve probably heard of Omega 3’s. Foods high in polyunsaturated fats contain these fatty acids. Your body cannot make Omega 3’s on its own so you need to include it in your diet. Omega 3 is important for a variety of reasons. It can help reduce your risk of heart disease and ease arthritis symptoms. It also aids in the proper functioning of your brain and your eyes. It’s also important for pregnant and nursing mothers to consume since young children have an increased need for this healthy fatty acid. (9)
Related: Amazing Benefits of Flaxseeds
What foods contain trans fats that I should avoid?
The following foods tend to be high in trans fats. As always, read the nutrition label carefully before you jump to conclusions about what it contains. You can click here to speak to a nutritionist about foods you’re currently eating that could be high in unhealthy fats.
- Vegetable oil
- Vegetable shortening
- Popcorn, chips, crackers and other packaged snack foods
- Bread, doughnuts, muffins, cakes, pies and other commercially made pastries and baked goods
- Packaged bread, cookie and pizza dough
- Fried foods such as French fries, breaded fish, onion rings and chicken nuggets
- Anything with “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” in the nutrition label
What foods contain healthy fats that I should include in my diet?
You can see from the above list that there’s a connection between the foods that are typically high in trans fats. They’re all man-made. By sticking to a more natural, whole-foods diet you can eliminate a lot of your risk of eating trans fats. The following are some of the best sources of healthy fats.
- Fish (especially wild-caught fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines)
- Nut butters (peanut butter, almond butter, cashew butter)
- Oils such as extra-virgin olive oil, and avocado oil
Fat is not the enemy of good health. However, there are healthy vs unhealthy fats. Choosing the right fat in your diet can help lower your risk of heart disease, inflammation and stroke. Speak with a nutritionist today to find out how you can get the right kinds of fat in your diet.
Kaitlyn Bain is a professional health and wellness writer with a passion for helping her clients educate their readers on healthy lifestyles.