Many people are still under the assumption that a low-fat diet is best for your health. This belief is false. Our bodies require fat to function, but not all fat is created equal. Fat provides the body with the proper nutrients for hormone development, cell growth and energy production. Proper nutrition can be achieved through a diet rich in fats, vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. Fat itself is an essential nutrient. Our bodies need the appropriate ratio of nutrients; this includes fats, protein and carbohydrates.
Fats are composed of building blocks called fatty acids. These fatty acids fall into two categories: saturated, and unsaturated fats (further divided into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated). There is also a fourth type of fat known as trans fat.
Saturated vs. Unsaturated Fat
Unsaturated fats are mostly liquid at room temperature and come primarily from plant-based foods. Unsaturated fats protect against heart disease as they do not raise blood cholesterol levels.
Unsaturated fats can be divided further into two groups: monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Examples of monounsaturated fats are olive oil and almond oil. These are safe for consumption but due to their chemical makeup, they should not be heated to high temperatures. Polyunsaturated fats are those consisting of omega-3s and omega-6s such as walnuts, green vegetables and fish.
Saturated fats are derived from animal-based products and are solid at room temperature. Saturated fats leave little room for free-radicals to intervene, thus these require minimal processing, which in turn makes them very good for our consumption. The most known examples of good saturated fats are butter and coconut oil.
The Most Harmful Fats: Trans Fat
Trans fats are the fats most harmful to cholesterol levels and provide the most increased risk to heart disease. As discussed, unsaturated fats are found liquid and saturated fats are found solid. Trans fats are naturally liquid oils but become solid at room temperature by the addition of hydrogen. This process is known as hydrogenation.
Hydrogenation turns relatively healthy oils into solids for the purpose of extending a food’s shelf-life. Indicators of trans fats are foods with ingredients containing words such as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated. The most well known hydrogenated fat is margarine or shortening.
You should avoid refined oils such as canola oil or other vegetable oils as these go through extreme processing. Also avoid “junk food” and fast food or anything that is pre-packaged such as cookies, muffins, pies and cakes as these often contain high amounts of trans fats. Most fast food chains use shortening and hydrogenated oils for frying food because they are inexpensive, readily available and they do not go rancid.
Avoid foods advertised as “fat-free” or “low fat”. These foods are usually chemically modified and may have harmful effects. When buying meat, chose the fattier cuts as this is more naturally occurring fat. For example, get ground beef with 20% or 30% fat instead of 3% or 5% percent. The best fats are natural and include real butter (with no oils added), olive oil and coconut oil.
Good Fat vs. Bad Fat
It is not always easy to differentiate between a healthy fat or an unhealthy fat.
Some examples of good fats and bad fats are listed below:
Good fats - eggs, coconut oil, avocados, olive oil, nuts, butter, fish high in omega-3 fatty acids
Bad fats - soybean oil, margarine, butter substitutes, hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils, flax oil