Is Fat Good For You?

Is fat good for you? Are there types of fats you should eat? Are there types of fats you should avoid? So many people express their concerns over the topic of healthy fats in the diet. That’s why I’m answering your top questions on how to do fats in your diet the healthy way.

The idea that fats are something to fear is common. Many people have the misperception that fats in the diet automatically lead to weight gain, high cholesterol levels, and heart disease. But it’s not quite that simple. While unhealthful fats can have negative impacts on your health, numerous studies have shown that healthful fats can actually improve your health. Thus, it’s important to be aware of the type of fats that you choose–some may lead to clogged arteries while others decrease risk for heart disease. In fact, the addition of healthy fats in your daily meals are necessary for proper body functioning. There are different types of fats to take into consideration: trans fats, saturated fats, monounsaturated fatty acids, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and omega-3 fatty acids. Each of these fats can be categorized based on their health potential. Today, I’m here to answer your top questions on the differences between these fats, along with lots of information on the benefits associated with healthy fats in your lifestyle.

Avocados contain healthy fats, including poly- and mono-unsaturated fats. Try this recipe for Avocado Crema.

Question: What are healthy fats and how do they differ from unhealthy fats?

Sharon’s Answer: 

Healthy fats are those that are unsaturated, such as poly- and mono-unsaturated fats. These are fats that come from plants, though tropical fats, such as palm and coconut oil, have saturated fatty acids in them. Plants have different types of fats, but most of them are in the unsaturated category. Foods like nuts, seeds, avocados, olives, and vegetable oils are mostly poly or mono, that’s why these are healthier fats. Oils made from these foods are healthier for your heart, too. Saturated fats, mostly found in animal foods (meat, high-fat dairy) are linked with health risks, in particular heart disease. 

Hummus includes tahini and olive oil–both heart healthy fats. Try this recipe for Olive Sun-Dried Tomato Hummus.

Question: Can you break down the differences between the following and explain which qualify as healthy and not healthy?

Sharon’s Answer: 

Trans fats: These are the least healthy—they are man-made fats mostly in the form of partially hydrogenated oils, but these have been largely banned from our food system. There are some small amounts found naturally in foods, but experts don’t think the natural sources are anything to worry about. 

Saturated fats: These fats are solid at room temperature, and they have been linked to health risks, in particular, heart disease. There is a lot of mythology about saturated fats now being “healthy”, but the past few decades of research have been quite conclusive that they raise cholesterol, which raises heart disease risk. That’s why all major health organizations still say to keep it to a minimum, no more than 10% of calories, even less if you are at high risk.

Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs): These are unsaturated fats (olive oil is a primary example) which have been linked with health benefits, such as lower risk of heart disease and cholesterol lowering. It’s one part of the Mediterranean diet that is benefit-producing. Olive oil on its own and as part of this diet pattern has health benefits.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs): These are unsaturated fats linked with lower heart disease risk and cholesterol, as well as reduced blood pressure. One type is omega-3 fatty acids (see below). They are liquid at room temp. Examples of sources include nuts, seeds, flax, fish, and seed oils.

Omega-3 fatty acids: These are PUFAs that are linked with particular health benefits, including heart and brain. The short chain type (ALA) are found in walnuts, chia, hemp and flax seeds, tofu, soy. And the long chain (EPA, DHA) are found in fish—particularly cold water fatty fish like salmon and algae oil. Your body can convert some of the ALA to EPA/DHA, but at low rates.

Chia seeds contain heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids. Learn more about chia seeds here

Question: When did researchers start recognizing the health benefits of healthy fats? 

Sharon’s Answer: 

This has been known now for the past few decades. Before that, there was a fear of fat, and low-fat diets were pervasive in the nutrition field and community at large. It was thought that all fats were bad for you, then increasingly the knowledge based on nutrition research showed that it was the type of fat that mattered. During the low-fat era, people replace fat with  refined carbs, and that was not a good health switch—now we know that refined carbs, such as white flour in baked goods, cookies, snacks, is linked with increased cardio metabolic risks, and healthy fats are not; they can actually help protect health. Now, moderate healthy fat intake is the way to go. The Med diet is a perfect example of this. 

Try this recipe for Vegan Caesar Dressing, which includes nuts and tahini, for a source of healthy fats.

Question: What are the key benefits of consuming healthy fats in your diet?

Sharon’s Answer: 

Healthy fats are linked with lowering cholesterol levels, which can reduce the risk of heart disease. There is a broad body of research on this, which is why the major organizations, such as AHA, AND, and DGAs, back up this approach to optimal eating. The best way you can make choices to promote optimal health in this area is to choose a healthy cooking oil (my top recommendation is EVOO), healthy spreads (i.e., nut butters and avocado butter), and avoid fatty meats, fatty dairy products, and tropical oils like coconut (look for coconut milk to reduce fat) and palm oil. Read ingredients and watch for saturated fat levels in food products. 

Healthy fats are linked with lower inflammation, which is the underlying cause of many chronic diseases. The opposite is true for saturated fats, which are linked with higher inflammation levels. Choose fewer animal foods to reduce saturated fat; choose sustainable fish twice a week, and include more nuts, seeds, avocados, and olives/oil in your diet. 

Healthy fats are linked with better brain health. In particular, omega-3 fatty acids are important in the development of the brain, as well as preserving brain health. They are anti-inflammatory fats, which have been linked with reducing risks of dementia, though we need more research in this area. Choose more servings of soy foods, nuts, and seeds like walnuts, chia, hemp, and flax. 

Nuts include healthy fats, such as PUFAs and MUFAs.

Question: What is the RDA for every person when it comes to healthy fats? 

Sharon’s Answer: 

As a macronutrient, the DRI is 20-35% of total calories from fat, and the recommendation is that at least 90% of those should be from healthy fats. For the average person, that means you need a total of 44 – 77 grams per day of healthy fat. The AI for ALA is 1.1-1.6 g per day, based on gender, for adults. 

Question: What’s the bottom line when it comes to healthy fats?

Sharon’s Answer:
Don’t fear fats! It’s all about moderate amounts, and choosing healthy options. That said, fat is very dense in calories, so if you are concerned about maintaining a healthy weight, keep your fat intake in check. Just a small serving at meals can be all you need. It’s easy to go crazy with fats. You don’t need to dump on 1/4 cup of EVOO to get benefits, that can provide you with almost 500 calories; instead just a drizzle is all you need. 

Try these recipes that contain healthy fats: 

Check out the other nutrition questions I’m answering at The Plant-Powered Dietitian: 

More Tools for Eating and Living the Goodness


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