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September 01, 2019 3 min read

By Ana Reisdorf, MS, RD

After decades of being the bad guy, fat is making a comeback. For years, we were told to consume a low-fat diet, but doing so didn’t make us healthier. Now, health providers are advocating for people to include fat in their diets, and for good reason.

The truth is, our bodies need fat. Fat is the densest source of calories, providing energy and fuel for our bodies to run on. Fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) depend on fat for proper absorption and transport — hence their names. Fat is an integral part of our cells’ membranes, or nerve coatings, and makes up a significant portion of our brain matter.

Additionally, fat is needed to make several hormones that are responsible for many of the body’s functions. And no, eating fat does not make you fat. Not all fats are created equal, and some are better for you than others, so let’s see which you should focus on.

Healthy Fats

Unsaturated fats are those that, chemically, contain double bonds and are liquid at room temperature. There are two types: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.

Monounsaturated fats include olives and olive oil, avocados and most nuts. These types of fats are a main component of the Mediterranean diet, which is thought to be protective against heart disease.

Polyunsaturated fats are essential, meaning your body can’t make them, so they have to come from your diet. The two main types of polyunsaturated fats are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Their main food sources include nuts and seeds and their oils, as well as fatty fish such as salmon and sardines. 

Trans fats are considered the worst types of fats to consume and are linked to increased 'all-cause' mortality. 

Omega-3s have anti-inflammatory properties and may aid in depression and arthritis; they are also critical for a baby’s developing brain. Both omega-3s and omega-6 fatty acids have been shown to protect against heart disease. The majority of Americans consume plenty of omega-6 fatty acids but not enough omega-3s. 

Saturated fats are characterized, chemically, as those containing no double bonds. Compared to unsaturated fats, which are liquid, saturated fats are solid at room temperature. Examples include red meat, coconut oil and full-fat dairy products such as cheese and butter.

Saturated fats can also be found in many baked treats and fried foods. The current recommendation is to limit saturated fats to less than 10% of total caloric intake due to concerns for increased risk of cardiovascular disease. However, saturated fats contain specific fatty acids that may actually provide health benefits, such as preventing or fighting off infections.

Unhealthy Fats to Avoid

Trans fats are considered the worst types of fats to consume and are linked to increased "all-cause" cause mortality. The majority of trans fats in our food supply do not occur naturally; they are produced by adding hydrogen to a vegetable, otherwise known as a partially hydrogenated oil. The process turns a liquid fat into one that is solid at room temperature.

Trans fats are most commonly found in baked goods such as pie crusts and ready-made frosting as well as chips, fried foods and some margarines. Thankfully, the FDA officially banned all artificial trans fats from the U.S. food supply as of June 2018. There are, however, several loopholes and grandfather clauses that have allowed for some food companies to continue to use them until 2020. 

What does all of this mean? For optimal health, focus on including lots of unsaturated fats in your diet, especially omega-3 fatty acids; consume saturated fats in moderation; and avoid all trans fats.

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