The Ultimate Guide to Fats: What are Good Fats and Bad Fats

good fats and bad fats

Because of the problems with weight gain and obesity, fats have been labeled as something that’s bad and should be eliminated from our diets.

However, doing so is actually unhealthy since our bodies need a certain percentage of fats.

One of the keys to a healthy balanced diet is understanding the difference between good fats and bad fats.

All of us need fats, and they are in fact essential to being healthy. Fats give us energy and helps our body repair and build cells.

The issue of fat really has to do with getting the type of fat rather that eliminating fat all together from our diets. This is one reason why low fat diets aren’t as effective as they should be.

To understand more, we take a deeper look at good fats and bad fats.

 

Taking Stock: Good Fats vs. Bad Fats

The Good Fats: The Good Guys

When it comes to good fats we are specifically looking at unsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats fall under 2 types: polyunsaturated and monounsaturated.

These two fats are called good fats because they have the ability to increase our HDL (good cholesterol) and lower our LDL (bad cholesterol) levels.

Studies have also shown that replacing unhealthy fats in our diets with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats we are able to lower our risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke.

 

PUFA (Polyunsaturated Fats)

chia seeds

One of the good fats that we should get from food is the polyunsaturated fat. Polyunsaturated fats are often found in plants and oils. They are called essential fats because our body doesn’t have the ability to create them on its own, but needs them to function properly. This means that we need to get these fats from food.

There are 2 main types of polyunsaturated fats, namely Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids.

Research has shown that polyunsaturated fat aids in lowering triglycerides, and overall cholesterol. It is also needed by the body to fight inflammation, control the muscles and build cells.

Corn oil and sunflower oil are two well known sources of polyunsaturated fats.

 

MUFA (Monounsaturated Fats)

olive oil

You’ve probably heard that extra virgin olive oil is good for the health. Olive oil is an example of an oil that has a good amount of monounsaturated fats.

Chemically, monounsaturated fats are fat molecules that have a single carbon-to-carbon bond. Because of this structure, monounsaturated fats are liquid when left at room temperature. But when left in cold temperatures like the refrigerator, they turn into solid form.

Monounsaturated fats have been proven to be healthy for the heart. The do this by improving our cholesterol levels, regulating blood pressure and lowering blood sugar. These fats also contain good amounts of vitamin E and antioxidants which help fight inflammation and have other health benefits.

Olive oil, canola oil and peanut oil are some examples of oils that are rich in monounsaturated fats. Avocados and peanut butter are also good sources of this fat.

 

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Salmon fatty fish 1

Technically, omega-3 fats fall under polyunsaturated fats. However these fats deserve special mention because they do our bodies a lot of good.

Omega-3 fats can be found in marine animals like tuna, salmon and other fatty fish. It is also available in plant sources like chia seeds and nuts.

Aside form improving our lipid profile and lowering risk of heart disease, omega-3 fats help regulate our heart rhythm, improves our blood pressure, strengthen our immune system and a host of other health benefits.

 

The Bad Fats: The Enemy

For the longest time trans fat and saturated fat were grouped together as bad fats. Not anymore. For the most part this group is left with trans fat by itself, though your could make an argument for the ratio of omega 6 fatty acids. But we’ll tackle that below.

 

Trans Fat

trans fat

Trans fat is often found in many of the modern foods we see today. It is the one fat you want to avoid because it has no health value.

Trans fat comes from the hydrogenation process which is used to turn liquid oils (usually healthy) into solid form.

Doing so allows the oils and food stored with them to last longer (have a longer shelf life). This works well for food providers and product manufacturers since the expiry dates of their products get extended and don’t spoil as quickly.

However being hydrogenated also turns the oils into unhealthy fats.

Trans fat intake has been associated with higher incidences of stroke, heart disease and other metabolic conditions like diabetes.

Fried foods, processed and packaged foods as well as snacks often have trans fat.

 

The Tweeners: Often Misunderstood

Saturated Fats: Given a Bad Rap

steak

Saturated fats are usually found in animals and animal products. They are present in meats, seafood, cheeses, milk and other dairy products.

We leave a special portion for saturated fat because it needs a bit more explaining. This is due to the more current research done.

In the past, the common belief has been that saturated fats are bad and that they are to be avoided or at least limited. The idea was that this type of fat increased our risk of heart disease.

More recently however, studies are showing that people who have had more saturated fat in their diet did not have any higher risk of cardiovascular disease compared to those who ate less of this fat.

Here’s the deal.

In 2010, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a meta-analysis of studies that looked at the association of saturated fat and cardiovascular disease. The analysis compiled 21 previous studies to see whether consuming foods with saturated fat did increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, heard disease and stroke compared to those who ate less of the fat.

The study covered close to 350,000 people over the span of 14 years. And their results shows that there was no relationship between heart disease and stroke with saturated fat consumption.

This along with a few other studies has changed the perception on saturated fat, and that it isn’t a bad fat, nor does it cause heart disease, stroke or increase the risk for cardiovascular disease.

Another study also showed that saturated fats actually increased the levels of HDL, which are the good cholesterol. The didn’t change the levels of the LDL (bad cholesterol) but did change their size from small to larger particles.

Small LDL particles have been shown to have bigger risks for heart disease compared with larger particles.

Together, these show that saturated fat is not the bad fat we were once told. We have yet to see if it belongs with the good fats but it has shown to help the HDL/LDL composition.

So for now, we put saturated fat in the ‘in-between’ category.

What we do know that while saturated fat isn’t bad, it also isn’t a good idea to have too much of it, just like any of the other fats in our list, good or bad.

The American Heart Association for its part, has continued to keep its stance on saturated fat. Simply put, limit it from your diet. Their recommendation is to keep saturated fat to between 5% and 6% of your daily calories. This figure is a bit lower than the ‘less than 10%’ of the USDA.

 

Omega 6 Fatty Acids

egg 1

Omega-6 fatty acids are another tricky topic.

When we consider them independent of any other factors they fall under healthy fats. They are an essential fat the body needs, so we need to get enough of them otherwise we can get sick.

Omega-6 fats have also been shown to fight against cardiovascular disease and protect our bodies from infection.

The issue however with omega 6 is that it can cause inflammation when there’s too much of it.

What compounds this is that Omega 6 fats are very prevalent in oils and foods.

Making thins worse is that today’s Western diet is loaded with omega 6. In less industrialized nations as well as our ancestors’ diets, they didn’t get as much Omega 6.

The key to omega 6 fats is the ratio between omega 3 and omega 6. Both are needed by the body so we need to get both. However, what’s happening is we’re often not getting enough omega 3 and getting too much omega 6.

Because Omega 6 can cause inflammation at excess, Omega 3 fats seek to balance them out because they are anti-inflammatory.

According to the Center of Genetics Nutrition and Health in Washington D.C., research suggest that man evolved with an omega 6 to omega 3 ratio of 1 is to 1. Today the Western diets have an omega-6:omega-3 ratio of 15:1 or 16.7:1.

This makes it deficient in Omega 3 and excessive when it comes to omega 6 fats.

This high ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 promotes health issues that include autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular disease cancer and other inflammatory based illnesses.

So the key to omega 6 fats is get enough of them but not too much, then increase omega 3 fat intake.

 

A Look at Cholesterol

One of the items that always come up in the topic of good and bad fats is cholesterol. Unlike the others, cholesterol is not a type of fat, nor is it a type of oil.

Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that is present in animal foods. They are more prevalent in some more than others. Whether you get your cut of meat lean or fat there is some cholesterol, there is less in lean cuts though.

Meats like beef, chicken, fish as well as dairy products like milk and eggs contain cholesterol.

Cholesterol in food does increase your blood cholesterol levels, as you would have guessed. This is one reason why we should avoid foods high in cholesterol.

As far as daily cholesterol limits are concerned, the USDA recommends the average individual limit their intake to 300 milligrams a day. If you have any heart disease risk factors, then reducing that to 200 milligrams is advised.

 

Good and Bad Cholesterol

The reason we should limit foods high in cholesterol is that cholesterol (the substance) cannot dissolve in our blood. This means that they go through our bloodstream.

This cholesterol is carried by lipoproteins. The 2 lipoproteins involved in this task are the high density lipoproteins (HDL) and the low density lipoprotein (LDL).

HDL and LDL, together with some of the triglycerides in our bodies make up our cholesterol levels (the number we see in our blood test results).

Bad Cholesterol: Low-density Lipoprotein (LDL)

Low density lipoproteins or LDL are called bad cholesterol because as they transport the cholesterol through our bloodstream they can form plaque along the arteries. Arteries are the passageways that our blood uses to travel throughout out bodies.

Plaque deposits meanwhile are thick hard substances can build up and become blockages that can clog our arteries.

As the arteries narrow or close to getting totally clogged, we can experience strokes or heart attacks.

The Good Cholesterol: High-density Lipoprotein (HDL)

High density lipoproteins (HDL) on the other hand, are good cholesterol. They act like cleaning crews that remove the LDL stuck in our arteries.

After they’ve remove the LDL the carry them to the liver which takes care of it and eventually is taken out of our bodies.

This is the reason why a high HDL level is good, and a low HDL level is not.

In the same manner, a high LDL level is not good, while lower LDL is what’s desired.

How are Good and Bad Fat Related to HDL and LDL

Good fats like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats along with omega-3 fatty acids have been proven to increase the levels of HDL, and also lower the LDL levels. In doing so the lower our risk of getting heart disease and strokes.

On the other hand bad fats, like trans fat, have been show to up the LDL levels and reduce HDL levels. This is why they increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

 

Getting More Good Fats into Your Meals

Knowing the different types of fats is half the battle. The next part is adding more good fats to our diets.

  • Changing the type of cooking oil you use for cooking and baking makes a big difference. After all, we eat 21 meals a week. For more on the which cooking oils to use and how to use them see our guide below.

Apart from using the right type of cooking oils there are a number of other ways to increase the amount of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in our diets. Here are some easy ways to do so:

  • Use olive oil for cooking. Olive oil is very versatile and can be used for many types of cooking. Use it instead of animal fat like lard or butter. It is also a better option compared to margarine. Canola oil is another good cooking oil with monounsaturated fats.
  • Have more nuts. Nuts are tasty and can be enjoyed as snacks, added to foods or used in place of breadcrumbs. They are high in monounsaturated as well as polyunsaturated fats, and have been shown to improve heart health.
  • Take advantage of chia seeds and flaxseed. These seeds are easy to incorporate into foods and drinks. They are packed with good fats and contain a number of vitamins and nutrients.
  • Enjoy avocados, peanut butter, dark chocolate and eggs. These 4 foods are among the most enjoyable foods around. They also contain good fats. Add them in moderation though since they also contain some saturated fats.

 

How Much Fat Should We Eat Per Day?

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has the following guidelines:

1. Limit total fat to 20 to 35% of your daily calories.

If you eat 2,000 calories daily, this means between 400 to 700 calories from fat. Fat is around 9 calories per gram, which equates to between 44 grams of fat to 78 grams of fat a day.

Adjust this number based on how many calories you need to eat daily.

2. Limit saturated fats to 10% or less of your total calories.

Despite what new research has shown, the USDA still considers saturated fat unhealthy and recommends limiting our intake to not more than 10% daily.

If you are at risk of cardiovascular disease or your family has a history of it, then going down to 7% of total daily calories is suggested.

So this limit goes under the total fats mentioned in #1 above.

This means on a 2,000 calorie diet, up to 200 calories (10%) can be from saturated. This equates to around 22 grams of fat per day.

If you go by 7% this will mean 15 grams of fat maximum.

3. Eliminate Trans Fat from your diet or at the very least limit to as low as possible.

The rule with trans fat is go as low as you can, zero is ideal.

4. Limit daily cholesterol intake to 300mg.

If you have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, then bringing that number to 200 mg per day is suggested.

 

Substituting Bad Fats for Good Fats

  • Eliminate trans fat from your diet. Cut down on eating processed foods and fast foods as well as these contain trans fat.
  • Limit your saturated fat intake. Saturated fat is found in animal products including red meat, full fat milk products. Instead, eat more fish and chicken. Also add nuts and seeds to your diet.
  • Add omega-3 fats to your diet. Both fish sources and plant sources of omega-3 are available.
  • Limit solid fats from diet. These fats have been hydrogenated which is why they are in solid form.
  • Instead choose fats that are liquid at room temperature. These include olive oil instead of butter or margarine.
  • If you drink milk go for low fat versions. There are also other substitutes to cow’s milk like almond milk.

 

A Quick Guide to Cooking Oil

guide to cooking oils

A big part of fats are their use in cooking. Cooking oils are a big part of our lives because use them everyday. This means that the choice of oil can make a difference in terms of our health.

We know that there are good fats and bad fats. The next part would to figure out which types of cooking oils are good for what type of cooking.

Why you may ask?

It has to do with the oil’s smoking point.

 

Smoke Point: When Good Fats Turn into Bad Stuff

Smoke point, as you would have guessed is the point at which the oil begins to smoke. This is something we all notice when we’re cooking.

At that point (the smoke point), the oil actually produces fumes that are toxic. Just as importantly, this is when the free radicals start forming.

Free radicals are harmful to the body and can cause long term cell damage which leads to illnesses like cancer and heart disease. This is why we want to avoid them.

Depending on the type of cooking oil you’re using, it may have a high or low smoking point.

This means to avoid the free radicals, choosing a high smoking oil for high fire cooking like deep frying is important. For this reason choosing cooking oil involves choosing something healthy but also one that fits the type of cooking you’re about to do.

 

Breaking Down the Popular Cooking Oils

Olive Oil

Olive oil has become one of the most popular cooking oils today. It can be used for cooking as well as vinaigrette, and many other ways. Olive oil is made from olives and carries with it high amounts of monounsaturated fats.

The monounsaturated fats make olive oils very healthy.

Olive oil comes in a variety of types with extra virgin olive being the best as it is natural and unrefined. It is however more expensive also.

Extra Virgin Olive oil begins to burn between 325°F to 375°F. This makes it suitable for stir frying, sauteing, baking or cooking in the oven. It isn’t a good choice for higher heat cooking.

Light Olive oil which is more refined isn’t as healthy but can withstand higher temperature cooking.

The oil can also be use in non-cooking situations like vinaigrette, or to put over food.

Canola Oil

Canola Oil has a high percentage of monounsaturated oil and has a low composition of saturated oil. While it does not have much omega-3 fats in it is makes a good medium heat cooking option if you prefer something less expensive than olive oil.

Canola oil has a slightly higher smoking point than olive oil at between 425°F to 475°F. Thanks to this canola can be used for frying and higher temperature oven baking.

Compared to some oils that leave some flavor like olive oil and peanut oil, canola is much milder which is another reason people like using it, as it does not interfere with the food’s taste.

Peanut Oil

Peanut oil is a favorite in Chinese cooking because it has a high smoking point. This makes it an excellent choice for stir fried cooking.

This oil has a very mild nutty flavor and burns at around 440 to 450 degrees fahrenheit. This allows us to use it for deep frying, medium heat baking and roasting aside from stir frying.

Peanut oil’s composition is split mostly with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats though it has a higher level of saturated fats at 18% compared to some of the other healthy oils.

Vegetable Oil

Vegetable oil is another high temperature cooking oil that has a smoking point of around 400 to 450 degrees fahrenheit. This allows it to be used in many different cooking methods including frying and sauteing.

Vegetable oil is actually a combination of different types of oils including palm, soybean and corn seeds.

Vegetable oil is another versatile oil with a mild flavor.

Sesame Oil

Made from sesame seeds, this oil has a nutty flavor which is one reason some people only use a little of it at a time. It comes in light and dark varieties with dark sesame oil having a heavier flavor profile.

Sesame oil is heavily used however in Asian cuisine including Korean and Chinese cooking.

Light sesame oil has a smoke point of 450 degrees while dark sesame oil burns at a lower temperature (350 °F)

Grapeseed Oil

Grapeseed oil wasn’t originally intended for cooking but has become one of the common oils being used today. Grapeseed is very high in polyunsaturated fats, namely omega-6 fatty acids. This makes up close to 75% of the oil.

Grapeseed oil has a high burning point at 425°F making it good for a lot of different types of cooking techniques.

 

Matching the Oil with the Cooking Method

Part of healthy cooking involves matching the oil with the cooking temperature. Choosing the right oil for the job not only keeps the oil from burning during the cooking process but also keeps harmful free radicals from developing.

For the most part, oils high in polyunsaturated fats like grapeseed, corn and soybean oils are limited to medium to lower smoke points.

A few oils with high monounsaturated fat content like almond, hazelnut and sunflower oil are able to withstand high heat cooking like searing and deep frying.

This is also one reason why saturated fats are often the choice of cooks for cooking. Butter and lard for example are great for high heat cooking because they are more resistant to heat and don’t burn as easily.

 

Conclusion

Not all fats are equal. And contrary to what many may tell you, avoid all types of fat in your meals is healthy.

Knowing the difference between good fats and bad fats makes a big difference in getting on your way to being healthier.