Separating Fat from Fiction

Understanding the difference between saturated, unsaturated, trans, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats.

When looking at a food label, one of the first things you may look at is the amount of fat. Most foods contain some amount of fat and some even contain several kinds of fat. What are the differences in the fats listed and are all fats bad for you? Are there fats that are okay to eat in moderation? How much fat should you consume each day? Big questions that require big answers.

First, the basics.

Dietary fat is found in plant- and animal-based foods. Fat is a macronutrient, along with carbohydrates and protein, that gives your body the energy it needs to function. Therefore, while you may run from all things fat, some fat is essential for good health. In fact, many vitamins require fat in order to dissolve and give you nourishment.

However, too much fat can lead to an array of health problems, such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and cancer. Because of these risks, it is important to make sure you eat healthy fats and avoid unhealthy fats. Now to figure out the difference.

Saturated Fat

There are two types of dietary fat: saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fat is solid when at room temperature and is found mainly in animal food sources like meat, milk, lard, butter, and cheese, and oils such as coconut, palm, and cocoa butter. Many snack foods, cakes, cookies, and desserts are high in saturated fats. This type of fat raises blood cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, which puts you at risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. With that in mind, less than 10 percent of your daily calories should come from saturated fats.

Trans Fat

Another fat to avoid is trans fat. Some animal foods naturally contain trans fat, but most trans fats come from unsaturated fats that have been processed by the hydrogenation process, a process that increases a food’s shelf life and makes it easier to cook with. Trans fat is found in many processed foods, cookies, chips, crackers, margarine, shortening, and salad dressings. Trans fat also increases your LDL cholesterol while lowering your healthy HDL cholesterol – a recipe for cardiovascular disease. Eat no more than 2 grams per day.

Healthier Fats

You may be surprised to learn that there are actually fats that may improve your health. These include monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, two types of unsaturated fats that come mostly from plant oils and are liquid at room temperature.

Monounsaturated fats include vegetables oils like canola, olive, and peanut. Foods with this fat may help to lower your LDL cholesterol while keeping your HDL cholesterol levels high if your diet is already low in saturated fats.
Polyunsaturated fats include vegetable oils like sunflower, sesame, safflower, corn, and soybean. These fats are also found in seafood. Eating polyunsaturated fat instead of saturated fat will help to lower your LDL cholesterol.

There are two types of polyunsaturated fats: omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids are particularly good for your heart and help decrease your risk for coronary artery disease and high blood pressure. Omega-6 is found in liquid vegetable oils such as corn, soybean, and safflower oil. Omega-3s are found in plant foods like canola oil, soybean oil, flaxseed, and walnuts; as well as fatty fish such as salmon, anchovies, shellfish, sardines, trout, mackerel, and herring. A healthy diet should include 8 ounces of fatty fish each week.

Switch It Up.

Your body needs some fat to function, but make it the right kind. If foods on your diet list partially hydrogenated vegetable oil among the first few ingredients, drop these foods and seek out healthier options, such as those with mono- and polyunsaturated fats.

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