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Welcome to my nutrition lifestyle blog! I'm a registered dietitian nutritionist feeding bites of reliable nutrition information. I share my life through my food experiences outside of diet culture. 

What Is The Difference Between “Healthy” And "Unhealthy" Fats?

What Is The Difference Between “Healthy” And "Unhealthy" Fats?

February is the season of love.

And what better way to show yourself some love than by serving up heart-healthy foods.

I can’t talk about heart health without talking about dietary fats. Dietary fat has the potential to increase or decrease your risk of heart disease. It all depends on the quality and quantity.

The function of fat and why we need it….

Fat is one of the three macronutrients (the other two are protein and carbohydrates). Macronutrients are the three basic foods our body needs for normal function. (1)

Fat in our bodies is used in a lot of different ways. For one it creates a protective barrier around every single one of your body’s cells. Every 37.2 trillion one of them.

Fat also creates a cushion around every nerve, called myelin sheath.

Fat is a major source of energy.  It’s more concentrated and efficient (per unit of weight) compared to carbohydrates. It’s what fuels low- to moderate workouts as well as longer, endurance exercise.

For this reason, I only drink whole milk and am not shy using butter on my toast. As someone who works out over the recommended 150 minutes per week, my body needs all the energy it can get.

There are 4 types of fat in our diets, that are not created equal.

  1. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated - the good type
  2. Saturated - the ‘somewhere in between’ type
  3. Trans fat - the worst type

Monounsaturated & Polyunsaturated = the good fat

The two forms of healthy fats are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These are the fats that protect our hearts and overall cardiovascular system. They reduce LDL ("bad") cholesterol and improves overall cholesterol profile.

It was discovered by a pretty cool study, Seven Countries Study during the 1960s, that revealed people living in parts of the Mediterranean region had a lower rate of heart disease despite their high-fat diets. But the key difference was the fat in their diets came from olive oil, whereas the fats in other countries (*cough cough* the U.S.) came from saturated animal fats.

This is where the whole idea of the Mediterranean diet came to light and has since been ranked as the number one diet to follow. I view it more as a reference or a guide to the foods I should eat on a regular basis, rather than a “diet regimen” per se.

Monounsaturated fats can be found in olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil, avocados, most nuts, safflower and sunflower oils.

Polyunsaturated fats are essential fats, meaning they are required for normal body function but your body doesn’t make them on their own. They include omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids.

You’ve all heard a lot about omega-3 and their unique health benefits, which include reducing blood pressure, raising HDL (“good”) cholesterol, and anti-inflammatory properties. Diets high in omega-3 protect our most vital organs, such as our hearts and brains, by reducing the risk of heart disease, strokes, dementia, Alzheimer's and other mental degenerative diseases.

Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines, flax seeds, walnuts, canola oil and soybean oil.



Saturated Fats  = ‘somewhere in-between’ fats

The typical American diet is pretty high in saturated fats. This is the one commonly found on the nutrition facts label. We can find them in red meat, whole milk and other whole-milk dairy products, cheese, coconut oil and many commercially baked goods.

Saturated fats can increase total cholesterol levels and tip the scale toward LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Higher levels of LDL cholesterol is what forms blood clots in arteries that can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Most nutrition experts recommend limiting saturated fats to under 10% of calories per day.

What does research say?

Despite the numerous research examining saturated fats and their link to heart disease, there is not enough evidence to conclude diets high in saturated fats increase the risk of heart disease.

However, research has been able to shine a light that when saturated fats are replaced with unsaturated fats (the good kind of fat) or high- fiber carbohydrates, the risk of heart disease is reduced.

But, when saturated fat is replaced with highly processed carbohydrates (think: white bread, sugary cereals, cookies, chips) it can do the opposite and increase the risk of heart disease.

Bottom line: Replace saturated fats with healthy fats (olive oil, avocado) and high fiber foods (brown rice, whole grain bread) to optimize heart health.


Trans Fat = the (very) bad fat

Trans fat is an industrial-made substance. It’s a byproduct of a process called hydrogenation, which involves pumping hydrogen into healthy fats to turn them into solids and prevents them from going rancid. Pretty much, it was invented by the food industry to extend the shelf life of their products.

You use to be able to find it in baked goods (think: cookies, cakes, and pies), ready-to-use frosting, buttered popcorn, almost everything in fast food restaurants, refrigerated dough products (think: biscuits, cinnamon rolls, and frozen pizza) and coffee creamer. Think anything overly processed or factory made.

Beware: Food labels will use the word “partially hydrogenated oils”

What the food industry didn’t bother to ask when creating trans fat was what the health consequences will be as a result.

Consuming foods with trans fat increases harmful LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and decreases HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Trans fat also creates inflammation in the body, which leads to a slippery (and sticky) slop into heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses.

According to Harvard Health Publishing, for every 2% calorie of trans fat consumed daily, increases the risk of heart disease by 23%.

That’s CRAZY.

Which is why the FDA has recently taken action to eliminate it from the food industry.

In 2015, the FDA released a statement to prevent food companies from using trans fat (or partially hydrogenated oils) and have 3 years to reformulate products. This was a huge win for the nutrition science world (and really for the general public health)!

Many companies have already started reformulating, which is why you may not even find it on labels anymore. But their deadline is June 18, 2018.


Biggest Takeaway:

Fat is very important in our diets. We should be eating more healthy fats. Use olive oil as your primary cooking oil and your go-to salad dressing. Don't be scared to dip your bread in olive oil or even butter! Eat avocados (or guacamole) on a regular basis. Buy walnuts for snacking or use them as toppings on your ice cream or salads. Be mindful of how often you consume red meats, limit to 1 time per week. (They're a great source of iron and B vitamins!) Whole milk and whole dairy products are great for highly active people as a source of energy. 


I'd love to know how you enjoy your favorite heart-healthy fats or if you have any questions!

Spread the love. Leave a comment. 

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