Good Fat Vs. Bad Fat
Fat gets a bad rap, but you can’t live without it. Good fats are part of every cell membrane in your body. They’re the key to transporting and absorbing the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, and they’re vital for the healthy function of every organ from your brain to your heart and intestines.
Bad fats, on the other hand, will do nothing but rain on your parade. They slow your metabolism, raise your cholesterol, and increase your risk of heart disease. But for all, we hear about “good” fat vs. “bad” fat, which is which?
Essential Fatty Acids
You’ve probably heard this phrase before: “Essential fatty acids” are just that–your body needs them to develop, grow and function. Omega-3 and omega-6 are the two fatty acids we hear about most often (a third, omega-9, isn’t called “essential” since the body easily produces it). Your body can’t make omega-3 or omega-6 on its own, so you have to get them through your diet. These fatty acids do a lot for you, from improving your brain function to regulating your metabolism and keeping your heart working smoothly.
Omega-6 is present in most seeds, nuts, and oils — in fact, it’s so common in the typical American diet that you probably don’t need to worry about eating more of it. Many nuts, seeds, fish and oils contain both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
On the other hand, odds are good that you need more omega-3; great sources include walnuts, fish and flax seeds. Omega-3 is a superstar; it’s been linked to a lower risk of heart disease. It may also lower blood pressure, regulate cholesterol and reduce the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Studies have been mixed on whether omega-3 supplements, such as fish oil, are as good as getting your omega-3 through food, but if you not a fan of nuts or fish, you’ll want to supplement.
“Unsaturated fat” is another term you hear a lot, but lots of people don’t quite know what it means; there are polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats. Chemically speaking, polyunsaturated fats are simply fats that have more than one double-bonded (unsaturated) carbon as part of their molecule. (Monounsaturated fats, as you might guess, have one double-bonded carbon component.) Polyunsaturated fats are usually liquid at room temperature and when chilled. Omega-3 and omega-6 are both polyunsaturated fats. You get monounsaturated fat, which is also good for you, from similar sources — mainly nuts, seeds, and oils, plus the mighty avocado. Monounsaturated fats are usually liquid at room temp, but semi-solid when cold (olive oil is a good example).
What you want to avoid are saturated fats. If you get confused, just remember that the good guys (the unsaturated fats) usually come from plant sources (and sometimes fish). They’re liquid at room temperature and either liquid or semi-solid when refrigerated. Saturated fats, which stay solid at room temperature, are the ones to watch out for.
If any type of fat deserves a “bad” label, it’s saturated fat. This type of fat lacks any double-bonded carbon atom/s, so it’s carbon atoms are “saturated” with hydrogen.
If you’re lacking in healthy unsaturated fats, saturated fats — which come mostly from meat and dairy — will disrupt your metabolism right down to the cellular level. Saturated fats have been shown to raise your cholesterol, increasing your risk for heart disease. That’s why it’s important to choose lean meats and avoid dairy products.
The one big exception to this is coconut. The particular type of saturated fat it contains — lauric acid — helps kick your thyroid into gear and stoke your metabolic fire.
We have no one to blame but ourselves for trans fats. These were developed by scientists as a cheap way to extend the shelf life of some foods by modifying liquid vegetable oil to become a solid. Unfortunately, that’s what it does in your arteries, too. Although it’s fairly easy to find processed cookies, bread and snack foods that advertise “no trans fats,” they’re still out there. And unfortunately, even items that say they contain “no trans fats” are allowed to contain up to .5-grams per serving. That’s why it’s best to limit your consumption of processed baked goods, fried food and chips/candy in general.
Food labels are required to break the bad fats out of the total per serving fat in a product. So you should see entries for saturated fat and trans fat, if applicable. Though not a requirement, some manufacturers also identify the number of good fats–monounsaturated and polyunsaturated–fats in a product. But if they’re not listed separately, just subtract the amount of bad fat from the total to get the “good” fat number.