Many people still believe that eating fat makes you fat. As it turns out, the idea that low-fat diets are healthy was a myth, and the low-fat craze of the 1990s did a huge disservice to our bodies and our brains.
Healthy fats and oils play a critical role in the function of many parts of the body. For example your brain is about 60 percent fat and needs fatty acids from healthy fats and oils in order to function properly.
Fats and oils also contribute to both the flavor and texture of foods, so low-fat foods are often high in sugar to help make them palatable. Eating these low-fat, high-sugar foods can erroneously cause you to pack on the pounds.
Let’s take a look at the role that eating fats and oils plays in your body to better understand why choosing healthy fats and oils won’t make you fat, and to understand what makes a fat healthy.
How Do Healthy Fats and Oils Help Your Body?
All fats and oils contain fatty acids. You may be most familiar with Omega 3 fatty acids, found in fish oil. When you eat healthy fats and oils, the digestion process enables the fatty acids to be absorbed into the blood. Fatty acids are a component of fats and oils that become the building blocks of your body, helping to create cells membranes and nerve sheathing among other body functions.
Eating healthy fats and oils has many benefits for your body. They …
- Are a good source of energy
- Help your body to absorb fat-soluble vitamins
- Aid your brain synapse to fire correctly
- Protect you from chronic inflammation (conversely, unhealthy fats and oils can contribute to chronic inflammation)
- Promote blood clotting when you get a cut
- Assist your muscles with proper function
What Makes a Fat Healthy or Unhealthy?
There are several categories of fats and oils—some are considered healthy and others unhealthy. The main categories of fats include
- Saturated fats
- Monounsaturated fats
- Polyunsaturated fats.
Trans fats, also called hydrogenated fats and oils, are the least healthy type of fat. Eating trans fats promotes chronic inflammation, which has been linked to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, dementia, and some cancers.
Trans fats are processed to prevent rancidity by combining liquid oil with hydrogen to make a solid fat. Trans fats are commonly found in margarines and vegetable shortening, cookies, crackers, baked goods, and fast-food French fries. Look for hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated fats or oils when you read labels, and avoid eating these foods if possible.
Saturated fats, found in animal fats including meats, dairy and eggs, and some tropical oils have gotten a bad rap in years past, but new research indicates that saturated fats may not be as harmful as previously thought.
Some forms of saturated fats, such as coconut oil, are comprised of medium-chain fatty acids, which are easier to metabolize than the long-chain fatty acids found in animal fats. This makes coconut oil much healthier for you. In fact, coconut oil has a whole host of other good properties, including lauric acid which is antiviral and antibacterial, and caprylic acid which is antifungal.
Monounsaturated fats are considered one of the healthiest types of fats to eat, and are the backbone of the Mediterranean diet. They are found in olives, olive oil, avocados, nuts, nut butters, as well as sesame oil, peanut oil, and canola oil. (Be aware that most Canola oil in the US and Canada is GMO unless specifically labeled as non-GMO or organic.)
Research has shown that a diet containing an abundance of monounsaturated fats can decrease the risk of heart disease as well as help stabilize insulin and blood sugar levels, which can be beneficial in managing Type 2 diabetes.
Polyunsaturated fats are required for some of the normal body functions listed above, but the body can’t produce them so they must be obtained from foods. Omega 3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat and can be found in cold-water high-fat fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines, and in flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, canola oil (again look for non-GMO or organic), and unhydrogenated soybean oil (also look for non-GMO or organic as most soy products in the US are GMO unless they specifically state non-GMO or organic.) Omega 3’s are also found in some greens, including romaine, spinach, and arugula. Note that the body only partially converts plant-based omega 3’s to DHA and EPA, which are found in cold-water fish
Omega 3s and Omega 6s
Omega 3 fatty acids and omega 6 fatty acids are both a type of polyunsaturated fat. For a healthy body, omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids need to be eaten in about a 1:1 ratio. However, the standard American diet contains about 15 to 16 times as many omega 6s as omega 3s, so the ratio is way out of whack. Omega 6 fatty acids eaten in a high concentration like that become pro-inflammatory and promote heart disease.
One way to combat inflammation is to eat more Omega 3s to help balance the ratio. But you can also look at your intake of omega 6s and try to cut back on those as well. Beef that is fed corn or grains is high in omega 6s (conversely grass-fed beef is high in omega 3s.) Safflower, sunflower corn, and cottonseed oils are all high in omega 6s. (Read labels for chips, crackers, cookies, and other processed foods, which often contain these oils.) Soybeans and corn are also high in omega 6s. Cutting back on processed foods and eating more cold water, high-fat fish can help get this ratio back in balance.
Healthy Fats for a Healthier You
As you can see, the human body benefits in a lot of ways from eating healthy fats. To improve your overall health, try to avoid trans fats, eat saturated animal fats in moderation, and eat more of these monounsaturated and polyunsaturated “good fats” to help keep you healthy:
- Nuts and nut butters
- Salmon, mackerel, sardines
- Coconut Oil
- Olive Oil
- Flax Seed