Fats have gotten a bad rap for the past few decades and unfairly so—because not all fats are created equal. There are good fats and bad fats. The quality and type of fats you consume is what affects your health. Certain fats play a critical role in your body and perform specific functions, while others can cause disease.
Fats are necessary to make hormones, create energy, keep your body warm, and for proper nerve and brain function. Fats also help your body transport and absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. So it’s important to eat healthy fats along with foods high in these vitamins (such as spinach, carrots, and broccoli). Additionally, fats provide flavor to foods and curb your hunger.
All fats are made up of both saturated and unsaturated fatty acids in varying amounts. They are called either saturated or unsaturated according to the highest amount of fatty acids they contain.
The structure of fats are like strands of pearls on a necklace. Saturated fats have strong single strands, or bonds, which make them more stable. Unsaturated fats have one or more double strands, or bonds, but they are weaker strands. This makes them more fragile and vulnerable to breakage. Unsaturated fats are also missing some hydrogen atoms, so they can be oxidized more easily, which creates free radicals.
Saturated fats are found mostly in animal foods. They have strong single bonds and are solid at room temperature. Your body has the ability to make saturated fats and can produce all it needs, so they are not an essential nutrient in your diet. The quality of saturated fats you consume is important to maintain healthy cells. Moderate amounts of high quality, natural saturated fats in the context of a nutrient-dense diet, are healthy and can be quite enjoyable and satisfying in a meal.
The following are your best choices of saturated fats:
On the other hand, the saturated fats contained in factory-farmed, grain-fed meats and dairy products are damaging because toxins tend to accumulate in fat cells. The toxins (antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, etc.) ingested by these animals, build up in their fatty tissues, and we ingest them when we eat them. So pasture-raised, grass fed meats are preferable, especially when buying fattier cuts of meat. Additionally, grass-fed meats have up to four times more anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats than grain-fed meats. And grain-fed meats have ten times more pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats than grass-fed meats. If you eat factory-farmed meats, make sure to buy lean cuts and cut off all visible fat to avoid these toxins.
New studies are contradicting the long-standing belief that saturated fat consumption causes heart disease. However, as mentioned earlier, it’s up to you to do your own research and decide how you want to include saturated fats in your own diet. The safest approach would be to chose the healthier, natural, saturated fats in moderate amounts, without overdoing it.
There are two types of unsaturated fats: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
Monounsaturated fats, or Omega-9 fatty acids, are non-essential because our bodies can make them as needed. They are the most abundant fats in the body’s cells. The most common type of omega-9 fat in our diets is oleic acid. Omega-9 fats have one weak double bond, are liquid at room temperature, and become solid when chilled.
They contain various health benefits and are found in the following foods:
These fats are central to the Mediterranean diet and have been shown in various studies to lower the risk of heart disease, improve insulin sensitivity, steady inflammation, and reduce cancer risk. Some monounsaturated fats like olives and olive oil contain phytonutrients called polyphenols that act as antioxidants, protecting the body from free-radical damage and inflammation.
Polyunsaturated fats are essential fatty acids, so we must get them from the foods we eat because our bodies can't make them. Polyunsaturated fats have two or more weak double bonds, so they are extremely fragile. Polyunsaturated fats are needed for building cell membranes, proper blood clotting, providing insulation, and a healthy immune response. They also make up the myelin sheath, the fatty layer that surrounds and insulates the nerves, which is important for facilitating nerve impulses.
There are two types of polyunsaturated fatty acids: Omega-3 and Omega-6. They both offer health benefits when consumed in the proper ratio. It's important to consume a ratio of about 4:1 of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids for overall good health. The average American is currently consuming a 20:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids—way too many omega-6s and not enough omega-3s!
Trans fats are unsaturated fatty acids that occur naturally in small amounts in certain foods, such as meat and dairy, but they aren't harmful from these natural sources. However, unnatural trans fats are unsaturated fats that have been infused with hydrogen to solidify them. These chemically-altered fats are added to packaged and processed foods to give them a longer shelf life. These artificial fats are toxic to the body and are not fit for human consumption.
Trans fats have be found to cause chronic inflammation, clogged arteries, high cholesterol, heart disease, insulin resistance, cancer, and obesity. Avoid margarines and any foods that have the words "trans fats," "hydrogenated," or "partially hydrogenated" on their ingredients lists.