FATS: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

One of the biggest myths in the nutrition world is the crazy idea that fat is what’s making us fat. The truth is, when you choose the right types, fats can be a wonderful part of a balanced diet. Our bodies need fat to help with things like cell growth, vitamin absorption and hormone production, and the USDA guidelines recommend getting 20-35 percent of your daily calories from fat.  Note that there are nine calories in every gram of fat, compared to four calories per gram in carbohydrates and protein, so it’s important to watch your portion sizes since calories can add up quickly.

So what kind of fat should you choose? Here’s a breakdown of the four major types of dietary fat:

Saturated Fats
These fats are solid at room temperature and are found in animal products (butter, meat, poultry, dairy, eggs) and certain solid vegetable fats like coconut oil and palm oil. They have been shown to raise bad cholesterol (LDL) and consuming large amounts can lead to increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Most guidelines recommend limiting saturated fat to less than 10 percent of total daily calories.  Keep in mind there are different types of saturated fat. Coconut oil contains lauric acid, a medium-chain fatty acid that increases both HDL and LDL. More research is needed to support many of the health claims recently being made about coconut oil, but for now it’s believed by many to be fine in moderation.

Trans Fats
Some occur naturally, but most are artificially made. They are used in frying and added to baked goods, packaged foods, etc., to help preserve shelf life. These are regarded as the most dangerous kind of fat not only because they raise LDL, but because they also lower good cholesterol (HDL). It’s recommended that we limit trans fats to less than two grams per day. Be aware that even if foods are labeled trans-fat free, they can still have up to 0.5 grams trans fat per serving. Also remember that just because something is labeled trans-fat free doesn’t automatically make it healthy.

Monounsaturated Fats
These fats come from plant products (canola, olive and nut oils, avocados, peanut butter) and are liquid at room temperature but solidify when chilled. They can help lower LDL and reduce your risk of heart disease. They’re also a good source of the antioxidant vitamin E.

Polyunsaturated Fats
Found in many vegetable oils, salmon and some nuts and seeds, these also include omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids—essential fats that your body needs for growth and brain function but cannot produce itself. They can help lower LDL and reduce your risk of heart disease.

As a registered dietitian, some of my favorite healthy fats to recommend are avocado, salmon, nuts, seeds and eggs. To add healthy fats to your diet, aim to eat fatty fish at least twice per week, try topping your burgers with avocado, and grab a handful of nuts next time you need a snack.

Lindsay is a registered dietitian, nutrition communications specialist and freelance writer from Westerville. She blogs about food, fitness and more at www.theleangreenbean.com.