Hi everyone. Today I want to write about fat. You might be wondering, “What kind of fat is good for me, and why, and how much?” And, “Is there really such a thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ fat?” It can be confusing for most people, including those of us in the medical field!
Our understanding of the role fat plays in our diets continues to evolve. Medical research shows not all fat is created equal. The amount and type of dietary fat you eat can influence your health in ways both positive and negative. For instance, trans fat clogs your arteries, but omega-3 fatty acids play an essential role in heart health.
Fats make up approximately one third of the typical American’s diet. Would our country’s weight problems be solved if we just cut all fat from our diets? Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Our bodies need fats. In fact, we can’t live without them. They keep our skin soft, help us absorb fat-soluble vitamins and are a great source of energy. Other things to know about fats:
- They are critical to cell membrane structure and function
- They are integral to brain and nervous system health
- They are the building blocks and regulators of many hormones
- They impact skin health and help regulate body temperature
- They protect, insulate and support internal organs
- They speed nutrients throughout the body
- They are immune system modulators
Unsaturated fats, including polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats (“good” fats)
High-quality fats help your body metabolize insulin, which keeps blood sugar better regulated. Without proper blood sugar control, your body stores fat to use at a later time, but the right fats can help increase fat burning and cut hunger so you won’t overeat.
Omega-3 fatty acids are high-quality fats. They are found in fatty fish, extra virgin olive oil, all kinds of nuts and things like flaxseed, chia seeds and many other seeds. While all are good sources of omega-3s, it’s important to point out that fatty fish, like salmon, has the most effective type of omega-3s that offer the most benefit to heart health and decreasing cardiovascular disease. The American Heart Association recommends eating two servings of fish each week.
Other “good” fats include avocados, olives and nut butter. But a quick word of caution: even good fats are dense in calories, so you must watch your portion sizes.
Saturated fats (“so-so” fats)
A diet too rich in saturated fat can raise cholesterol levels, clog arteries, and increase the risk for heart disease, but a little saturated fat is fine in moderation for a healthy diet. Most nutrition experts recommend limiting saturated fat to under 10 percent of calories a day. Saturated fats are found in animal products such as red meat, poultry skin, high-fat dairy and eggs. Leaner animal products, such as chicken breast or pork loin, often have less saturated fat.
Trans fats (“bad” fats)
You might be a little confused about trans fats (also known as trans fatty acids). There is a small amount of trans fat that naturally occurs in foods like beef, pork, lamb, butter and milk. According to many experts, this natural trans fat is not a problem if consumed in small quantities.
However, most trans fats are man-made, and have been added to all sorts of foods to increase their shelf life. This artificial kind of trans fat occurs when liquid oils are hardened into something called “partially hydrogenated” fats. They are often used in frying, baked goods, cookies, icings, crackers, packaged snack foods, microwave popcorn and some margarines.
Man-made trans fats clog arteries and increase the risk for heart disease, even when eaten in small quantities. Trans fat is considered by many doctors to be the worst type of fat you can eat. Unlike other dietary fats, trans fat both raises your LDL cholesterol (the “bad” one) and lowers your HDL cholesterol (the “good” one). In short? Trans fats should be avoided whenever possible.
Although medical research continues to uncover just what makes up the optimal healthy diet, at the end of the day the message is very simple. Eat real food. Eat good fats. Eat very little sugar and refined carbs. Avoid processed foods and trans fats. If you follow these guidelines as much as possible, you’ll be on your way to healthy eating!
Juli Johnson, APRN, works at the INTEGRIS Cancer Institute, where she is an Integrative Medicine practitioner. Juli is an advanced practice nurse who has been with INTEGRIS since 2000. In 2014, she graduated from the Fellowship in Integrative Medicine program at the University Of Arizona College of Medicine, where she studied under the Integrative Medicine pioneer Andrew Weil, M.D.