Whether you’re on a diet or not, chances are good that you’ve heard a million things about “good” fats and “bad” fats, and since new information on fats seems to come out almost daily, there is a good reason why so many people are confused when deciding which fats to eat and which ones to avoid.
The Basics of Fat in Our Diets
Since the low-fat diets became so popular several decades ago, many people assume that the lower your fat content in your diet, the healthier you will be, but that is not the case. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s dietary guidelines, people do better when 20% to 35% of their dietary intake comes from fats.
If this number sounds high to you, you’re not alone. When the low-fat craze hit, many people were lowering their fat intake to only 10% of their diet, but as you can imagine, this didn’t work out too well. In fact, fat is necessary for our diets because it offers numerous benefits, including:
- Keeping our skin softer.
- Providing us with essential fatty acids.
- Helping us energize fuel so we can have the energy we need.
- Delivering fat-soluble vitamins.
Nevertheless, learning which fats to consume and which ones to avoid can feel overwhelming, to say the least, so let’s dive into some of the facts concerning this important ingredient to learn what all the fuss is about.
Whether you’re concerned about fat because you want to lose weight or simply because you’re trying to get healthier, it’s good to know more about the different types so that you can start eating better, and that can be a lot easier than you think.
Because the U.S. government now requires labels that disclose how much fat and cholesterol are in each food item, reading labels is the first thing you should learn to do. These labels break down the fats of the food and tell you the types of fat and how much of each fat is in there.
There are two basic types of fat – saturated and unsaturated – along with other types found in each of these two categories.
The unsaturated fats are the “good” fats and include mono- and poly-unsaturated fats, such as the Omega-3 fatty acids. If you try to eat mostly unsaturated fats and less saturated fats, you can lower your cholesterol level and therefore reduce your risk of heart disease and other illnesses.
When it comes to the Omega-3 type of polyunsaturated fats, these can be found in foods such as trout, salmon, mackerel, and catfish. They are found in other foods as well, such as flaxseed and walnuts. In fact, the American Heart Association recommends that people eat these “fatty” types of fish twice a week to provide them with a good dosage of healthy fats.
When it comes to the second type of unsaturated fat – mono-saturated fat – it can be found in foods such as olive oil, avocados, sesame seeds, and peanut oil. These fats provide you with a good source of vitamin E, which is a great antioxidant and which unfortunately is lacking in many American diets.
What About the “Bad” Fats?
Of course, eating more of the good fats doesn’t mean you don’t have to stop eating the bad fats. In fact, it is this combination of adding more good fats to your diet and eliminating as many of the bad fats as possible that enables you to enjoy better overall health, so both of these should be your goal.
Although it may be impossible to avoid saturated fats altogether if you include these fats as no more than 7% to 10% of your diet, that can help a lot. Saturated fats are found mainly in two types of foods:
- Animal products such as meat, poultry skin, eggs, and any high-fat dairy foods.
- Vegetable fats that are liquid at room temperatures, such as palm oil or coconut oil.
It is generally recommended that you cut back on animal products and steer clear of anything that says “partially hydrogenated” on the label.
Trans fatty acids, or trans fats, are in the news a lot these days, and for good reason. Trans fats are dangerous and come in two main types. The first type of trans fats occurs naturally and is found in foods that include meat and dairy products, although they are usually found in small amounts. The second type is an artificial trans fat and occurs when liquid oils are hardened into the partially hydrogenated fats mentioned earlier.
The natural type of trans fats isn’t much of a concern to nutrition experts and can be reduced by choosing lean meats and low-fat dairy products. Unfortunately, the artificial type of trans fat is found everywhere, including baked goods, cookies, fried foods, microwave popcorn, prepackaged snack foods, and some margarine.
Many foods that are packaged contain trans fats, but again, you can look at the label and see just how much is in the food. If you can, you should aim for 0% trans fat in the foods you eat, but if you can’t do this, at least make sure the percentage is as low as possible – 0.5% or less.
The bad press that trans fat is getting these days is well-deserved because most nutrition experts say that this type of fat is worse than any other type, including butter and lard. If that sounds frightening, it should. Trans fat is extremely dangerous for our bodies, which is why the American Heart Association recommends limiting trans fat to two grams or less each day – and that includes the trans fat that occurs naturally in some of our foods.
In fact, trans fat has been shown to lower the “good” type of cholesterol (HDL) and raise the “bad” type (LDL), which is the opposite of what most of us are trying to do in our diets. Regardless of how you look at it, trans fat is something you should avoid as much as possible, and the nutrition labels on the foods you eat can help you do just that.
Avoid the “Bad” Types of Fat
Avoiding bad fats isn’t that difficult once you learn what some of them are. Indeed, it is easier to avoid certain foods if you become familiar with what they are. Some of the foods that have bad fats in them and should be avoided include:
- Coconut products
- Dairy foods (except skim milk)
- Palm oil products
- Partially hydrogenated oils
- Poultry and poultry skin
On the other hand, foods that have the “good” fats in them include the following:
- Fish oils
- Nuts and seeds
- Oils such as corn, canola, almond, safflower, sesame, peanut, cottonseed, and sunflower
- Olive oil
- Peanut butter
If you think of a food that is in liquid form naturally but which has been “pumped” up to make it solid food, it should be avoided. This includes vegetable shortening and margarine, and while you’re at it, avoid foods that are packaged or processed as well, along with any fried foods, because nearly 100% of these types of food will have the unhealthy fats in them in some quantity or form.
The good news is that once you learn which fats are good for you and which fats to avoid, you can immediately start reading the labels on everything you buy so that you know ahead of time how much trans fat and saturated fat is in the foods you wish to eat.
What’s So Wrong with Bad Fats?
Many doctors will tell you that inflammation in the body can cause you to suffer with heart disease, an increased risk of stroke, and even diabetes, among other illnesses. Trans fat consumption has been directly linked to increased inflammation in the body, which is but one of the reasons why it is such a dangerous type of fat.
If you consume too much of the bad fats, it can cause cholesterol to build up in your arteries and increase your risk of stroke and heart disease, but it can also cause you to gain weight. Carrying around too much weight greatly increases your risk of dozens of other diseases and illnesses, so regardless of how you look at it, eating too much of the bad fats is going to make you less healthy.
Fortunately, you can turn this around almost immediately by starting to watch what you eat and get down to a healthy weight.
If you’re curious about the numbers, look at it this way – if you’re following a 2,000-calorie diet, your numbers should look like this: 16 to 22 grams of saturated fats should be your limit, or roughly 140 to 200 calories of your daily intake. When you consider that just one slice of cooked bacon usually contains about nine grams of saturated fat, you’ll understand how closely you have to watch your diet when you’re limited to saturated fats such as trans fats.
Labels Can Be Deceiving
Okay, so we’ve determined that reading labels is crucial when you’re trying to reduce your fat intake, but there are some things you need to know about doing that. First of all, it is a must to look at serving size, which is usually much smaller than many people realize. If you’re getting ready to dive into a certain food and the label says that the “calories from fat” is equal to less than 30%, that is fine and dandy. But you have to remember that that number is for one serving only.
If you decide you want to eat more than one serving, you could easily go above your limit and eat too much fat in the end. Remember that 0.5% trans fat per serving is a low number, but it becomes a large number if you decide you want to eat three or four servings at one time.
If you’re eating out, it may not be as difficult to watch the amount of fat you eat as you might think. Many restaurants, including fast-food restaurants, now have nutritional information available for all of the dishes they serve. If you’re at a restaurant and you don’t see this information, ask your server because the restaurant may have this information in the back somewhere.
In fact, it has never been as easy as it is now to find out the nutritional information associated with the foods you eat, which means reducing your fat intake is now easier than ever. If you’re in the grocery store, nearly every food you pick up will have a label explaining all of the nutritional aspects of that food, and this increasingly includes fresh produce, meats, and vegetables as well as anything found in a can or box.
Fat is not always bad for you and in fact, humans need fat in their diets to be healthy. It’s just when people eat too much fat that it becomes unhealthy and even dangerous for you. Why do we eat so much fat as Americans? For two main reasons: it tastes good, and it is readily available because it is found everywhere in all types of foods!
Eventually, these small changes will add up and in fact, they become easier to make the longer you work at trying to reduce the amount of fat in your diet. The main thing to remember is to avoid or reduce the amount of saturated and trans fat in your diet and try to use more unsaturated fats instead. You have to do both of these things for the plan to work, but it’s a lot easier than you might think and can become a habit before you know it.
When you’re watching your fat intake, you can start by making small changes such as switching from butter to canola or olive oil, replacing red meat with skinless chicken or fish several times a week, and replacing high-fat dairy products with those that have low fat or no fat at all. Fortunately, lots of companies make low-fat and nonfat alternatives to the foods they make, so making these changes is easier than you think.