Fats - The Good, The Bad, and The Healthy Diet

Fats - The Good, The Bad, and The Healthy Diet

"Eat a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet." Most of us have heard this simple recommendation so often over the past two decades that we can recite it in our sleep. Touted as a way to lose weight and prevent cancer and heart disease, it's no wonder much of the nation - and food producers - hopped on board.

Unfortunately, this simple message is now largely out of date. Detailed research shows that the total amount of fat in the diet, whether high or low, isn't really linked with disease. What really matters is the type of fat in the diet. Bad fats increase the risk for certain diseases and good fats lower the risk. The key is to substitute good fats for bad fats.

The Bad Fats

Some fats are bad because they tend to worsen blood cholesterol levels.

Saturated Fats

Saturated fats are mainly animal fats. They are found in meat, seafood, whole-milk dairy products (cheese, milk, and ice cream), poultry skin, and egg yolks. Some plant foods are also high in saturated fats, including coconut and coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil. Saturated fats raise total blood cholesterol levels more than dietary cholesterol because they tend to boost both good HDL and bad LDL cholesterol. The net effect is negative, meaning it's important to limit saturated fats.

Trans Fats

Trans fatty acids are fats produced by heating liquid vegetable oils in the presence of hydrogen. This process is known as hydrogenation. The more hydrogenated an oil is, the harder it will be at room temperature. For example, a spreadable tub margarine is less hydrogenated and so has fewer trans fats than a stick margarine.

Most of the trans fats in the Western diet are found in commercially prepared baked goods, margarines, snack foods, and processed foods. Commercially prepared fried foods, like French fries and onion rings, also contain a good deal of trans fat.

Trans fats are even worse for cholesterol levels than saturated fats because they raise bad LDL and lower good HDL. While you should limit your intake of saturated fats, it is important to eliminate trans fats from partially hydrogenated oils from your diet.

The Good Fats

Some fats are good because they can improve blood cholesterol levels.

Unsaturated Fats--Polyunsaturated and Monounsaturated

Unsaturated fats are found in products derived from plant sources, such as vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds. There are two main categories: polyunsaturated fats (which are found in high concentrations in sunflower, corn, and soybean oils) and monounsaturated fats (which are found in high concentrations in canola, peanut, and olive oils). In studies in which polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats were eaten in place of carbohydrates, these good fats decreased LDL levels and increased HDL levels.

Dietary Fats

Type of FatMain SourceState at Room TemperatureEffect on Cholesterol Levels
MonounsaturatedOlives; olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil; cashews, almonds, peanuts, and most other nuts; avocadosLiquidLowers LDL; raises HDL
PolyunsaturatedCorn, soybean, safflower, and cottonseed oils; fishLiquidLowers LDL; raises HDL
SaturatedWhole milk, butter, cheese, and ice cream; red meat; chocolate; coconuts, coconut milk, and coconut oilSolidRaises both LDL and HDL
TransMost margarines; vegetable shortening; partially hydrogenated vegetable oil; deep-fried chips; many fast foods; most commercial baked goodsSolid or semi-solidRaises LDL

Tips for lowering trans fat intake:

  • Choose liquid vegetable oils or a soft tub margarine that is contains little or no trans fats.

  • Reduce intake of commercially prepared baked goods, snack foods, and processed foods, including fast foods. To be on the safe side, assume that all such products contain trans fats unless they are labeled otherwise.

  • When foods containing hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils can't be avoided, choose products that list the hydrogenated oils near the end of the ingredient list.

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Fats - The Good, The Bad, and The Healthy Diet