Good Fats and Bad Fats Explained

The types of fat found in food can be as confusing as this 1957 advertisement for good 'ol fashion lard. 

With sugar becoming the 'new fat' to watch out for in food, fat is making a strong comeback in our diets. Fat plays many major, vital roles in the body. We need fat to maintain healthy happy hormones, help to manage mood, fight fatigue, control body weight, and absorb Vitamins A, D, E + K,  (Vitamins C and the B's are water soluble). We want fat on our team, but it needs to be the right kind of fat. The key to making friends with fat is to understand the type of fats to eat on a regular basis, the types to keep to a minimum and the types you can ditch altogether.

Fat often gets lumped (sorry, couldn't help myself!) into two categories: Good + Bad.

Good fats are unsaturated fats, and are liquid at room temperature. Bad fats are saturated and trans fats.

Unsaturated fats - AKA The Good Guys

These are the fats we want to be friends with. Unsaturated fats come in two types, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated which refers to the structure of the fats.

Polyunsaturated fats + Essential Fatty Acids

Polyunsaturated fats are in vegetable oils (safflower, sesame, corn, soy, sunflower) as well as nuts and seeds and cold water fish. Polyunsaturated fats provide the body with essential fatty acids (EFA's). EFA's are considered essential because our bodies cannot make them; we have to consume them daily. 

The two primary EFA's are Omega 3 + Omega 6.

Omega 3 comprises of three kinds of fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA),  docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and  Alpha-linolnic acid ALA.

Cold water fish such as mackerel and salmon and fish-oil products provide both EPA and DHA. Both of these omega 3's have powerful anti-inflammatory benefits in the body as well as positive effects on heart disease, high triglycerides levels in the blood (more on this in a moment) and high blood pressure. Plant based sources of omega 3's include ground flaxseed, walnuts, chia seeds and marine algae. 

Omega 6 is comprised of Linoleic acid (LA), which the body converts into gamma linolenic acid (GLA). Omega 6 is more abundant than omega 3 in most foods and can be found in nuts, seeds, sunflower and corn oil. Evening Primrose Oil (EPO) is a great source of omega 6 GLA. 

Omega 3 tends to provide anti-inflammatory effects while omega 6 can promote inflammation, so it is the balance of these two EFA's that is important. This balance will happen naturally when eating a whole foods based diet, and a less processed one.

Monounsaturated fat

Monounsaturated fat is found in olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, avocados and nuts. These fats are beneficial for blood cholesterol levels and insulin and blood sugar regulation. 

Trans fats + Saturated fats AKA The Bad Guys

Saturated fat is found in most red meat, poultry and dairy products. This type of fat is best limited in the diet as to much of this in the diet can raise LDL cholesterol in the blood and contribute to conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. 

Most trans fat is artificial fat made to resemble saturated fat. Trans fats are fats that have been deformed during a process known as hydrogenation. During this process liquid vegetable oil is heated and combined with hydrogen gas, making it more stable and less likely to spoil. This is beneficial for shelf life but not so much for the body. Trans fat will raise the levels of LDL in the blood stream, increasing the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Trans fat is found in commercially baked goods (cookies, muffins etc), packaged snack foods, fried food, pre mixed products (e.g cake mix) and anything with 'partially hydrogenated oil' in the ingredients list. Bottom line? These man-made, artificial fats designed to keep products 'fresher' for longer are no good. No wiggle room. Kick them off the team.

What about Coconut Fat?

There are about 24 different types of trans fat and not all are bad for you. Coconut oil is made up of saturated fat, but it is the type of saturated fat here that is important. Lauric acid, the medium chain triglyceride (MCT) that coconut oil is made of, helps to boost HDL levels of cholesterol. As MCTs are more easily digestible, they are used as energy rather than stored as fat. Bonus. 

In a Nutshell?

Ditch any and all pre-packaged, deep fried, artificial fat and focus on getting your fats from wholefoods - cold water fish, nuts, seeds, avocados and olive oils. Aim for balance, too much of a good thing is too much - even the good fats!