For many decades we were told that we should minimize the use of fat in our diet in order to cut down the risk for cardiovascular disease. The nutrition science is constantly evolving, and it’s not rare that something we have learned in past is later found to be not entirely true.
We have seen the “low-fat” fad diets of the ‘80s and ‘90s to the raged love for fat renewed by the Paleo movement, a lot of people are still unsure & confused about fat; particularly, to differentiate the good from the bad and how much fat to eat.
Over the past about two decades, research experiments have been conducted to examine the specific impact of changing quantity and/or type of dietary fat on the risks of obesity, diabetes and other health conditions. What has been found is very interesting: Dietary fat is not that simple as to classify it as just “avoid or “include”. Fats can now be better categorized into those that foster inflammation & illness and those that cut down inflammation and risk of disease.
Read on to learn which fat type should you eat and how much to reduce the risks of high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes & many other chronic diseases.
Fat – The Misunderstood, the Good, and the Bad
Fat is one of the 3 macronutrients (along with carbohydrates & protein). One gram of fat contains about 9 calories. Fat is an essential component of diet because it enables your body to absorb vitamins A, D, E & K (the fat-soluble vitamins), is a source of energy, building block for hormones and helps in proper functioning of your brain. It also helps maintain skin & hair healthy, in fact a component of every cell membrane, and is necessary for the myelin sheaths around your nerves.
Best Sources of Dietary Fat: Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) & omega-3 (polyunsaturated fats – PUFAs), are the 2 best source. If you know about the “Mediterranean diet”, which happens to be higher in fat – you probably already know about the heath benefits of these two fat types, namely, monounsaturated fats and omega-3, polyunsaturated.
According to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, which analyzed the studies published between 1990 and April 2016, it was concluded that the Mediterranean diet (this diet is rich in plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes, moderate in red wine & dairy, and lower in meat & meat products) was associated with reduced risks for heart disease, stroke, diabetes & breast cancer. The Mediterranean diet is rich in MUFAs as well as omega-3s.
Dietary Sources of MUFAs: Monounsaturated fats have been shown to reduce cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure as well as heart disease risk. Olive oil, avocado, almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, pumpkin & sesame seeds, and peanuts are rich in MUFAs.
Caution: When exposed to heat and light, the fat in oils, seeds & nuts can go rancid. Thus try to store these items in dark, cool places. Keeping nuts & seeds in refrigerator will extend their shelf life for months.
Omega-3 & Omega 6 Fats – Which one is More Beneficial: These are two different types of polyunsaturated fats.
Both are essential fats – meaning your body needs both of them but cannot produce them. You can get them only from food.
However, there is a lot of controversy on omega-6 fats. A typical diet is quite rich in omega 6s because it is found in many food products such as soy, corn, cottonseed oils, and in the most commercially prepared meals as well as the packaged foods. Omega-6 type fats have been shown to be linked with raised levels of inflammation in the body. Whereas a standard American diet can have a quite disproportionate ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s – somewhere between 25:1 to abnormally as high as 100:1, the actual recommendation is for a much smaller ratio of 2:1, and no more than 5:1.
Omega-3 fats are well known for their anti-inflammatory property. They can be sourced from both plant & animal sources. Fatty fish, like wild Alaskan salmon, herring, sardines, tuna and mackerel are among the top sources of the omega-3s EPA and DHA, which have been shown to associated with heart, brain & eye health, as well as reduced joint pain and decreased depression. Plant sources of omega-3s are walnuts and seaweed – they contain alpha-linolineic acid (ALA), which needs to be converted in the body to EPA and DHA, but the conversion process is not efficient. So, it is suggested to obtain at least eight ounces of omega-3-rich fish in a week and daily intake of plant sources.
Saturated Fats: They become hard at room temperature and are contained in meat, dairy, coconut oil, palm oil, butter and lard. These foods have, since past many decades, been linked to increased cardiovascular risk because they were believed to raise total and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels.
Some recent studies have shown that there was no significant scientific evidence found to conclude that saturated fat alone can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
But, still many health organizations have not come out to remove the stigma associated with saturated fats.
One saturated fat that has been subject matter of discussion in the past few years is coconut oil. This saturated fat is high in lauric acid, which has been found to raise the “good” HDL cholesterol level and decrease the ratio of total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol, which lowers cardiovascular risk. Coconut oil has been applauded for promoting both gut & brain health, and also as a good source of energy because of the high concentration of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). Unlike other fats, MCTs are metabolized differently. They are transported directly to the liver where they are transformed in to usable energy rather than getting stored.
Whereas there is now consensus among the health organizations that saturated fat is not villainous as it was once believed, but they still recommend getting most fat from monounsaturated fats and omega-3s.
Trans Fats: All health organizations unanimously agreed upon one thing – that the trans fat is number-one evil that you must avoid. Though trans fats occur naturally in some foods, but mostly they are artificial types that are produced through the process of hydrogenation. Trans fats were introduced by food manufacturers as they have longer shelf life and help preclude a food from going rancid quickly.
Although trans fats are a good thing for food manufacturers, but it has been found in several studies that trans fats on one hand raise both total and LDL (bad) cholesterol, on the other they lower HDL (good cholesterol), promoting inflammation and enhancing risks for chronic heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other chronic diseases. Research from the Harvard School of Public Health and many other health organizations have found that trans fats can harm your health even in small amounts: Just for every two % of calories from trans fat ingested daily, the risk of heart disease increases by 23%.
Trans fats are contained in vegetable shortening, bakery products & pre-mixed products (cake and brownie mix), processed foods, fried foods & prepackaged snack foods.
Caution: Because no amount of trans fat is considered as healthy, the best way to cut down on this type of fat from your diet is to steer clear of the foods/products that have the words “Partially hydrogenated oil” mentioned on the label.
Some examples of different Fat Types:
|GOOD FATS||Saturated FATS (Limited Amounts)||BAD FATS (Avoid)|
|Avocado||Saturated fats – butter||Trans fats – shortening|
|Olive oil||Dairy||Packaged baking mixes|
|Almonds, cashews, walnuts||Eggs||Fried food|
|Flaxseeds (ground)||Packaged baked goods|
|Salmon, tuna, halibut, sardines, herring, mackerel|