Much has been written about fats over the years, and parsing the old, the new, the contradictory, and the cutting-edge can be difficult if you’re shaky with the basics. You may have a vague notion of ‘good fats’ and ‘bad fats’, but when you read a nutritional label do you know enough to be informed? Whether you’re learning for the first time or just need a refresher, this article will help you to start understanding fats, knowing to eat, avoid, moderate, and seek the right fats for a healthy diet.
Unsaturated fats, generally speaking, are the ‘healthy fats’ you want making up the majority of your fatty intake. Most research shows benefits to heart health when consuming foods rich in these fats.
Monounsaturated fat. You’ll find these in a wide variety of foods–often alongside unhealthier fats, so pay attention! Improves blood cholesterol levels, improves insulin levels, and may help with blood sugar control—a major boon if you’re looking to lose weight or controlling type 2 diabetes.
Polyunsaturated fat. These are found primarily in plant-based foods, these improve blood cholesterol levels and may decrease your chances of developing type 2 diabetes.
Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. While omega-3 acids get more attention in terms of supplementation and literature, consumption of both has been associated with improved heart health, reduced risk of coronary artery disease, lower blood pressure, and reduced heartbeat irregularities. Maintaining a proper ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 consumption is important, due to the mechanisms by which they work—meaning you may need to focus on getting more omega-3s, due to the prevalence of omega-6s in common cooking oils and other foods products. You’ll find them primarily in fish and fish products, although less bio-available forms can be found in plants.
Historically, all saturated fats have been considered ‘bad fats’ to avoid in your diet. Most saturated fats will be solid at room temperate, including looser fats such as butter and shortening and consistent fats such as the fat in meat. However, recent research has stirred debate on the subject, and promises to draw additional attention with the rise of high-fat low-carb diets and their frequently-high consumption of fatty meats. Still, if you’re looking to play it as safe as possible, keep saturated fat to a minimum in favor of unsaturated ones—and keep an eye on research to come.
Unlike saturated fats, there’s no debate to be had on trans fats. They’re bad news, according to every study conducted. Increasing your risk of heart disease and offering no benefits in return, trans fats occur naturally to a small degree in many foods, but usually arise in significant amounts in ‘partially hydrogenated’ products due to the processes involved. Great efforts have been made in recent years to reduce the presence of trans fats in food products, so it’s getting easier to avoid them—but be sure to check your labels just in case.