Good Fats vs Bad Fats: The Ultimate Guide
It is inevitable that people talk about the good and bad types of fat whenever talking about this macronutrient in food. They also talk about the many products that have “zero-fat” in their labels. Is fat such a ‘bad’ compound that one should exclude it from his or her diet? Learning more about this macronutrient can help you make wiser and healthier choices related to your diet.
Understanding What Fats Are
To help us differentiate between good and bad fats, it is crucial to have a definition of fats first. Fats are organic molecules that have two very distinct parts. These are fatty acids and glycerin. During digestion, these two components break apart. The glycerin and fatty acids are absorbed in different ways.
When we talk about dietary fats, it is almost always the fatty acids that we focus on. Fatty acids contain carbon atoms in a chain-like fashion. They also contain an acidic group. The fatty acid chain can contain as few as 5 carbon atoms or as many as 24 carbon atoms.
Fats are macronutrients like proteins and carbohydrates. They are large molecules; hence, the term ‘macro’. A single gram of fat – regardless of type – can deliver 9 calories. By comparison, both carbohydrates and proteins only contain 4 calories per gram of the macronutrient. This makes fats an excellent source of energy.
During fasting, it is these fats that provide energy to humans. Fasting involves the purposeful abstinence from eating any type of food. The body does not receive energy molecules from food. As such, it will burn the fats stored in different parts of the body. This will serve as fuel for the cells.
In addition to providing long-lasting energy for cells and tissues, fats are also important in the absorption of certain vitamins. Vitamins A, D, E, and K all rely on fat molecules for them to get absorbed and utilized by the cells. Without fat, eating foods that are rich in these vitamins can lead to vitamin toxicity.
Fats are also a very important component of the cell membrane. It provides a protective layer and ensures the structural integrity of the membrane. The cells that benefit the most from this function of fats are the brain cells and the heart muscle cells.
Types of Dietary Fats
There are two general types of fats classified according to the degree of hydrogen atom saturation of the chemical bonds. It also depends on the presence of a double bond between carbon atoms. In general, unsaturated fats contain at least one of these double bonds in the fatty acid chain. Saturated fats, on the other hand, do not have double bonds along the chain.
One can also look at saturated fatty acids as a series of zigzag chains that stack on top of each other. Each carbon atom in the chain connects to two hydrogen atoms. The longer the carbon chain is, the more hydrogen atoms that the chain has. This makes the fatty acid saturated.
It is quite easy to distinguish these two types of fat. Saturated fats often have a more solid consistency. They are soft-solid at room temperature, solid in the refrigerator, and can turn liquid when cooked. On the other hand, unsaturated fats are able to retain their liquid consistency even when put in the refrigerator.
The Good Fats
Unsaturated fats are the good or healthy fats. They include monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids.
- Monounsaturated Fats
This type of fats is healthy because they can help reduce both the risk and incidence of stroke and heart disease. Monounsaturated fats can also reduce the levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. This fat has been implicated in different cardiovascular events, including atherosclerosis. Monounsaturated fats can also help increase the levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. This can help promote healthy function of the heart.
Monounsaturated fats can also help prevent abnormal heartbeats while also lowering blood pressure. What’s more, these fats can help lower the levels of triglycerides and help the body fight inflammation. There are also studies that show monounsaturated fats can lower the risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes.
Good sources of this type of unsaturated fats include avocados, peanut butter, and olives. Almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, pecans, peanuts, and macadamia nuts are also excellent sources of monounsaturated fats. Other sources include sesame oil, peanut oil, canola oil, and olive oil.
- Polyunsaturated Fats
Polyunsaturated fatty acids have the same benefits as monounsaturated fats. They can help reduce the risk of diabetes, stroke, and heart disease. They can also help improve the levels of good cholesterol (HDL) and reducing the levels of bad cholesterol (LDL).
The foods that are good sources of this type of fats include fish oil and fatty fish like herring, sardines, mackerel, salmon, tuna, and trout. Flaxseed, walnuts, tofu, soybean oil, and safflower oil are also good sources. Sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds also contain good amounts of polyunsaturated fatty acids.
There is one type of polyunsaturated fats that is well-known for its ability to promote optimum heart health. Omega-3 fatty acids are present in many species of fatty, deep-water fish. This fatty acid can help reduce the risk of heart diseases associated with the blood vessels of the heart. Two of the most important types of omega-3 fatty acids are Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) and Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA).
DHA reduces the levels of triglycerides in the blood, at the same time increase HDL levels. It also prevents the entry of LDL molecules into muscle cells. DHA can support the recovery of muscle tissues and fight inflammation. It is crucial to the normal function of the brain and spinal cord.
EPA, on the other hand, can help reduce inflammation at the cellular level. There are studies that show, EPA can help reduce inflammation of the nerve cells, especially in cases of trauma, ADHD, and depression. This polyunsaturated fatty acid is essential in the optimum brain development of children. It can also help in promoting optimum joint and cardiovascular system health.
Excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids include tuna, anchovies, salmon, herring, halibut, sardines, trout, mackerel, oysters, and mussels. There are also plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids; although they contain ALA and not DHA or EPA. These include Chia seeds, flaxseed, edamame, beans, spinach, Brussels sprouts, walnuts, and kale. Seaweeds are great sources of DHA and EPA.
The Bad Fats
There are two types of fats that healthcare professionals consider to be bad for your health. These are trans fats and saturated fats.
- Trans Fats
There are dairy products and meats that contain natural trans fats. However, the majority of the foods that contain this type of fat undergo a process called hydrogenation. It involves the addition of hydrogen atoms to the fatty acid chain. We know that the more hydrogen atoms in the carbon chain, the more saturated it gets. Manufacturers hydrogenate their oils to improve their shelf life.
It is these ‘unnatural’ trans fats that are considered ‘unhealthy’. As a matter of fact, trans fats are regarded as the worst types of fat. These fats increase LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol, and blood triglyceride levels, increasing the risk of LDL-related disease. It also decreases HDL levels. Trans fats promote inflammation and increase insulin resistance. This can lead to a higher risk of developing non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus.
There are many food products that contain ‘artificial’ trans fats. These include commercial-grade pizza dough, cookies, muffins, donuts, and other pastries. Packaged snack food items like chips, crackers, and microwavable popcorns also contain artificial trans fats. Vegetable shortening and margarine sticks also contain this type of fat. Any food that gets fried or sautéed in partially-hydrogenated oil can contain trans fat.
- Saturated Fats
Saturated fats do not bring the kind of harm to the body that trans fats do. However, these fats can still have a negative effect on heart health. They can increase the levels of both HDL and LDL in the body. It is for this reason that one should eat foods rich in saturated fats only in moderation.
Nutritionists recommend a daily saturated fat intake of not more than 10 percent of one’s calorie requirements. For example, if a person needs 3,000 calories every day, then he or she should not consume more than 300 calories coming from saturated fats. This translates to about 33.33 grams of saturated fats.
Examples of food items that are rich in saturated fats include red meat, butter, lard, and chicken skin. Ice cream and tropical oils like palm oil and coconut oil are also rich in saturated fatty acids. Milk, cheese, cream, and other whole-fat dairy food products can also contain saturated fats.
It is best to stay away from ‘processed’ or ‘commercially-available’ products that contain hydrogenated oils. Limit your intake of saturated fats to about 10 percent of your daily calorie requirements. Include more unsaturated fats in your diet. Eat more vegetables, nuts, and fish. Limit your meats.
Learning the different types of fats can help you make wiser decisions as to the types of food to include in your diet. Minimizing your intake of saturated fats, while eliminating trans fats in your diet can improve your health.