In the past you may have heard that eating fat was bad. Eating too much of the wrong types of fat is not good for you, but there are several types of fat that are good for you. These are actually essential for the proper function of your body.
Does eating fat make you fat?
Fats are high in calories so they were thought to contribute to obesity. A gram of fat has 9 calories which compares to 4 calories for a gram of protein or carbohydrate. So it is easy to eat too much fat.
Eating fats contributes to satiety. If you don’t eat fats you will not likely be satisfied after a meal or feel full for very long. And many processed foods replaced fat with sugar or processed carbohydrates and ended up with the same number of calories.
What are healthy fats?
Your body needs fats. Fats help with metabolism, hormone balance and help us to absorb several nutrients. Fat is also required in the brain and nervous system. But which types of fats should you be eating?
There are two main types of polyunsaturated fats – omega 3s and omega 6s. Omega 3s have more benefits that omega 6s and are harder to get in our modern diets. Unfortunately, the standard western diet contains a much higher proportion of omega 6s
Omega 3s help to decrease inflammation, lower the risk of chronic diseases, improve brain health and improve immunity.
They are found in fish like salmon, flax seeds, chia seeds and algae. Fish and algae contain the most beneficial types of omega 3s. It is difficult to get enough omega 3s from food sources alone so you may want to take a supplement.
Omega 6s are also essential fatty acids. They help to reduce the risk of heart disease, lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of cancer. Most people easily get enough omega 6 fatty acids.
Omega 6s are found in sunflower seeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds and most plant-based oils.
Monounsaturated fats help to lower the bad LDL cholesterol and reduce inflammation. People who consume monounsaturated fats had a lower risk of heart disease, stroke and dementia.
Monounsaturated fats are found in olive oil, avocados, and nuts.
Why you need healthy fats
I’ve discussed some of these reasons already, but let me summarize the main reasons for including fat in your diet.
Fats are important for several reasons:
- Energy source
- Necessary for the function of the brain and nervous system
- Hormone balance
- Use of fat-soluble vitamins
- Provide essential fatty acids
- Some evidence that healthy fats help to reduce some of the symptoms of menopause
What foods contain healthy fats
The healthiest forms of fat can be found in foods like:
- Fatty fish
Which fats should you avoid
Generally fats that are heavily processed should be avoided. This includes trans fats and hydrogenated fats and oils.
Trans fats are made by adding a hydrogen ion to unsaturated fats (hydrogenation). This makes the fats solid at room temperature and improves shelf life and mouth feel of foods. Trans fats have now been banned in several countries.
Trans fats increase LDL cholesterol and decrease good HDL cholesterol. They increase your risk of heart disease, strokes and type 2 diabetes.
Trans fats may be found in snack foods like cookies or chips. They are also found in solid vegetable oils like margarine or vegetable shortening.
Which fats should you limit?
Saturated fats are linked to an increase in bad (LDL) cholesterol levels, heart disease and weight gain. That doesn’t mean you should eliminate them from your diet, but foods that are high in saturated fats, especially if they are heavily processed and also contain processed carbohydrates should be limited.
Saturated fats are fats that are solid at room temperature. They include butter, lard, coconut oil and the fat found in many types of meat and dairy products like cheese. Although you may have seen coconut oil endorsed as a healthy type of fat it does carry the same issues as other types of saturated fats and its health benefits have likely been exaggerated. I limit my coconut oil use to where the taste matters such as in Thai coconut curries, or a butter replacement when cooking for dairy-free relatives.
Try to choose foods that have some other nutritional value. A piece of cheese is high in saturated fats but also contains calcium and protein. A donut is also high in saturated fats but has little nutritional benefit. It is important to note that eggs actually contain more unsaturated fat than saturated and beef also has a high percentage of unsaturated fat.
Heavily Processed Fats
You should also limit highly processed vegetable fats. These are oils like sunflower oil, corn oil and safflower oil. While vegetable oils have been promoted as a healthy alternative to saturated oils, many of these are heavily processed. Choose walnut oil, extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil where possible.
Can you eat too much fat?
It is never a good idea to eat too much of any food. By eating too much of one food, you crowd out other nutrients that you need. If you get most of your fat from whole foods, it is more difficult to eat too much. This means eating avocados instead of avocado oil, walnuts instead of walnut oil or beef instead of lard.
Include a balance of fats in your diet. Don’t overdo it with saturated fat, but try to eat a variety of other fats, especially from whole food sources. If it sounds overwhelming to make changes like this, get Meal Planning Plus to find out how to plan healthy meals.