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Which Fats are Healthy and Why?

Modern diets like Whole30, keto and paleo have health-conscious eaters taking a closer look at sugar, which is a significant shift from the fat-obsessed dieting of previous years. We understand now that fats are essential to good health, but before you order extra bacon on your bunless burger, it’s important to understand which fats are healthy and what makes them healthy. OhioHealth dietitian Susannah Schneider explains not all fats are created equal, and we need to be mindful of which fats and foods we choose.

What does fat do?

“Fats are a source of energy, just like protein and carbs,” says Schneider, “but fat is more calorie dense. A gram of fat has nine calories; protein and carbs each have four calories per gram.”

Beyond energy, Schneider says fats aid in the absorption of vitamins A, D, E and K, which are important for the structure of our cells. “Fats also affect the flavor and texture of food. Foods with fat keep us satisfied for longer periods of time. And, fat helps to regulate our body temperature.”

Which types of fat are bad for me, and which are good?

“There are three types of fats: saturated, unsaturated and trans fats. The word ‘saturated’ in this context relates to the chemical structure of the fats, and how many hydrogen bonds there are in the fat molecule,” says Schneider.

  • Saturated fats are commonly found in animal products like beef and pork, and full-fat dairy products like butter and cheese. Saturated fats can elevate your cholesterol levels, which may contribute to heart disease.
  • Unsaturated fats are generally plant-based, in foods like avocados, nuts and olive oil, but they’re also found in fish and seafood. Two types of unsaturated fats are monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Unlike saturated fats, unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. These fats can help raise your good cholesterol levels (HDL) and lower your bad cholesterol level (LDL).
  • Trans fats are the ones to avoid. They’re often found in fried and processed foods. They can work in the opposite way as unsaturated fats, lowering your HDL cholesterol and raising your LDL, which can lead to heart disease and diabetes. Trans fats are also known as partially hydrogenated oils. Look for that ingredient on your food labels, because companies are allowed to say a food has 0 percent trans fats per serving if the amount is less than half a gram.

What happens if I eat too much fat, or too little?

“Too much fat in your diet can, of course, lead to excess body weight. And consuming the wrong types of fat can also contribute to high blood pressure, high cholesterol and hypertension,” says Schneider. “Eating too little fat could possibly contribute to vitamin disorders, since many vitamins important to our health are fat-soluble. You could also experience malnutrition and muscle wasting over an extended period of time without adequate fat in your diet.”

How can I work more healthy fats into my diet?

“These days, we’re discovering that it’s more important to focus on the source of fat rather than the total amount,” says Schneider. “Even nutrition labels will be changing to avoid over-emphasizing fat over other ingredients consumers should also be paying attention to. There are several easy changes you can make in your diet to incorporate healthier fats.”

  • Use healthy oils rather than butter whenever possible. Outside of baking, butter can often be swapped with olive oil.
  • Try avocado spread instead of mayonnaise. It has fewer calories by serving size and provides the creaminess of mayo with healthier fat.
  • Try some roasted, unsalted nuts in your yogurt instead of granola, which can be high in sugar.
  • Replace a few red meat portions in your weekly diet with fatty fish like salmon or mackerel. Fatty fish is high in Omega 3 fatty acids that are great for your health.

Want to chew the fat on nutrition with one of our dietitians? Give the McConnell Heart Health Center a call!


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