“Fat” doesn’t usually connote good things when it comes to food. But sometimes it should.
First off, you need some fat in your diet. It offers sustained energy and helps transport vitamins and minerals in your body. Beyond that, all fats are not equal, and some are downright healthy for you.
The key is understanding the difference between “good” and “bad” fat. To be sure, if you already consume less-than-stellar fats, don’t add good fat to your diet on top of the lackluster stuff. Instead, cut back on relatively worse fats, replacing them with good fats.
Good fat: monounsaturated fat
- What it is: Comes from plants. Generally liquid or almost liquid at room temperature.
- Health effects: Lowers dangerous LDL cholesterol, raises beneficial HDL cholesterol and might protect against the ill effects of saturated fat. Bonus: Foods with monounsaturated fat often have lots of micronutrients .
- How to get the most from cooking or eating it: Keep temps low when you cook with oils. You never want them to smoke because they degrade in a way that’s bad for your health. “Refined safflower oil has one of the highest smoke points at 510 degrees, and olive oil varies from 390 to 470 degrees,” says Laurie Mitchell, RDN, a registered dietitian and nutritionist who oversees Unum’s corporate wellness programs. “The more refined (impurities removed), the higher the smoke point.”
- Sources: avocados, canola oil, nuts, olive oil, peanut butter, safflower oil, sesame oil, seeds
Good fat: polyunsaturated fat, especially omega-3 fatty acids
- What it is: Found largely in cold-water fish and certain seeds. Generally liquid or almost liquid at room temperature.
- Health effects: Lowers risk of heart disease and stroke by reducing clogs in the bloodstream and inflammation in arteries. Lowers triglycerides, which in high amounts can lead to heart disease. Could ease arthritis.
- How to get the most from cooking or eating it: Same as for monounsaturated fats, in terms of cooking with oil.
- Sources: chia seeds, canola oil, flax seeds, herring, nuts, pumpkin seeds, sardines, salmon, trout
Not-as-good fat: saturated fat
- What it is: Usually comes from animals. Generally solid at low temperatures.
- Health effects: Raises dangerous LDL and can clog arteries. That said, it does help your body absorb certain micronutrients and supports processes in your body — but you’re still better off getting most of your fat from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated sources. Also, eliminating saturated fats is twice as effective at lowering blood cholesterol levels as increasing polyunsaturated fats, according to the National Institutes of Health.
- How to get the most from cooking or eating it: Eat lower-fat versions of animal products that have saturated fat. That way you reap other health benefits from those foods. If no low-fat version is available, eat those foods in moderation. The American Heart Association suggests limiting saturated fat to 5% to 6% of caloric intake, which for a 2,000 calorie-a-day diet translates almost 3 cups (a lot!) of 2% milk (somewhat low-fat).
- Sources: butter, cheese, coconut oil, ice cream, palm and palm kernel oil, meat
- Worth noting: Coconut oil, recently hailed as healthy, is the source of debate in terms of nutritional benefits. It is quite high in saturated fat, and its lauric acid and myristic acid are known to have similar effects as serum lipoproteins, increasing LDL cholesterol in the body, Mitchell says. “Given that coconut oil contains 44% of lauric acid and 16% of myristic acid, the regular consumption of coconut products isn’t recommended. Coconut oil does increase good cholesterol (HDL) so a small amount occasionally isn’t harmful.”
Bad fat: partially hydrogenated fat, trans-fat
- What it is: Found mostly in highly processed foods. It’s an unsaturated fat — but structurally different than the unsaturated fat that occurs naturally in plant-based foods (monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat). It’s formed artificially during food processing when a liquid vegetable oil is made more solid to extend its shelf life.
- Health effects: Raises dangerous LDL and lowers helpful HDL. Contributes to insulin resistance, which increases risk of developing type 2 diabetes, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Even small amounts of trans-fats can hurt you: For every 2% of calories from trans-fat consumed daily, the risk of heart disease rises by 23%, Harvard says.
- How to get the most from cooking or eating it: Avoid. It’s not essential to your diet.
- Sources: coffee creamer, fast food, margarine, microwave popcorn, ready-to-use frosting, refrigerated dough products such as biscuits and cinnamon rolls, vegetable shortening
- Worth noting: To be sure, some sources of bad fat come in healthful versions, so look at food labels.
Journalist Mitra Malek regularly creates and edits content related to wellness, including as a contributing editor for Yoga Journal. Connect at www.mitramalek.com.