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With an uprise in consciousness about their health, people are looking into the kinds of food they eat. A common misconception faced by many is about the consumption of fats.
Fats are generally perceived to be bad for health and avoided to prevent weight gain. However, it is important to understand that there are both good and bad fats, the former being an essential part of a healthy diet.
What Are Fats?
Fats are organic molecules made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. These micronutrients are important parts of the daily diet and help in:
- Insulation and padding
- Delaying gastric emptying
- Providing energy to the body
Fats provide more energy than carbohydrates because they contain less oxygen and more carbon.
Different Kinds of Dietary Fats
There are three different kinds of fats: unsaturated, saturated, and trans fats.
1. Unsaturated fat
Unsaturated fats are loosely packed fatty acids that bend and move, which is why this fat is commonly liquid at room temperature.
Oils are the most recognizable form of unsaturated fat, including olive, canola, or vegetable oil. It is recommended to choose oils over solid fats for a healthy lifestyle.
2. Saturated fat
Saturated fats are tightly packed fatty acids that allow for the fat to be solid at room temperature. Foods such as butter, fat on or in meats, and cheese all contain high levels of saturated fat.
The average intake of saturated fat for Americans is about 11% of their daily calories. According to the Dietary Guidelines, it is recommended that Americans consume less than 10% of their calories as saturated fat. (1)
3. Trans fat
Trans fats naturally occur in some foods but are most commonly used in their hydrogenated form. Trans fats are formed when oil is hydrogenated to create a saturated, stable, tightly packed solid.
Trans fats are found in milk fat, shortenings, baked goods, snack foods, and fried foods. It is recommended to limit the amount of trans fat in your diet as studies show a strong relationship between high intake of trans fat and cardiovascular risk. (2)
Fats That Improve Your Health
Although fats get a bad reputation in the world of food, they are an important part of a healthy diet. There are “good fats” that should be added to the diet, and these are unsaturated fats that contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
Olive, canola, peanut, sunflower, and coconut oils contain monounsaturated fats.
Examples of polyunsaturated fats include:
- Palm kernel oils
Oils are also found in olives, avocados, nuts, and seafood. Some oils such as coconut oil or palm and palm kernel oils contain saturated fat and should be consumed less often.
Unsaturated fats are good for you because they provide omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids and vitamin E. (3)
Fats That Harm Your Health
Saturated fat and trans fat are shown to have negative effects on your health. Saturated fat is solid at room temperature, and common sources are butter and animal products, such as beef, pork, chicken, and dairy products. Saturated fat can also be found in some oils, including coconut, palm kernel, and palm oils.
Some research showed that saturated fat can increase low-density lipoprotein levels (LDL) and can lead to an increased risk of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. (4)
Trans fat is bad fat and should be limited in your diet. It is commonly used in processed food items such as cookies, cakes, margarine, and snack foods.
Studies revealed that trans fat increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, especially coronary heart disease. (5) When grocery shopping, be sure to read the nutrition label to determine if a food item contains trans fat.
Best Sources of Good Fat
Many foods contain “good fats.” These fats are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in a variety of nutritious foods that can easily be incorporated into your diet.
Some food sources of good fats include:
Are Low-Fat Foods Recommended for a Healthy Diet?
It is common to see foods marketed as “low fat,” “fat-free,” or “contains 50% less fat.” While these products may seem appealing because they contain less fat in the product you enjoy, they are not necessarily better for your health.
Fat is added to foods for flavor, texture, or appearance. When fat is removed from a food product, it doesn’t taste as delicious or look as appealing. Sugar or refined carbohydrates are typically added as a replacement to still give your favorite food the same familiar flavor and appearance.
When you are grocery shopping, be wary of products that are marketed as “low fat” or “fat-free.” This type of labeling is not always a better choice for your health.
Healthier Alternatives for Unsaturated Fats
Substituting unsaturated fats for saturated fats is the best practice for a healthy diet.
- Use vegetable oil instead of butter when cooking. Oil is a healthier alternative to butter.
- Try avocado instead of butter when baking. Avocados can be used as a substitute for fat in baked goods and still offer great flavor and texture.
- Instead of coconut oil, try vegetable or canola oil. Coconut oil contains high levels of saturated fat, and it is recommended to use vegetable or canola oil to decrease your intake of bad fat.
- Greek yogurt is a better alternative for butter. Greek yogurt contains vitamins, minerals, and probiotics.
- Try turkey bacon instead of pork bacon. To satisfy a craving for bacon, try turkey bacon instead. It is leaner and contains less saturated fat.
- Make baked goods at home instead of buying them from a grocery store. Baked goods purchased at a grocery store contain trans fats.
- Eat lean meats instead of fatty beef or pork. Lean meats are typically skinless varieties of poultry such as chicken or turkey. Purchase lean pork and beef, and look for ground beef that is at least “80% lean.”
- Use low-fat cheese when cooking. Full-fat cheeses contain higher levels of saturated fat. Low-fat cheese is a healthy alternative to add to homemade pizza, pasta dishes, and casseroles.
Using Oil for Healthy Baking
Butter, lard, or vegetable shortening are common ingredients that add tenderness to baked goods, but oil is a healthier substitute for these solid fats since it contains unsaturated fats or “good fats.” Popular oils used in baking are vegetable oil and canola oil.
If a recipe calls for butter and you substitute oil, it will not be a 1:1 ratio, you would use slightly less oil than butter. When substituting a recipe with oil, pay attention to the consistency of the batter to ensure that it is not too oily or dry.
Useful Tips to Regulate Your Fat Intake
It is essential to distinguish between what is good or bad for your body. Fat intake, to a certain extent, is necessary for normal body functioning. Therefore, while choosing healthy fats, remember:
1. Variety is important
It is inevitable to avoid all foods containing saturated fats. However, it is important to incorporate as many foods into your daily diet to balance out your nutrient intake.
2. Choose oils over solid fats
Choose oils over solid fats when cooking or baking. This will ensure that you are decreasing your saturated fat intake and increasing your intake of heart-healthy fats.
3. Avoid foods containing trans fat
Trans fat is the one type of fat to limit entirely in your diet. When shopping, read nutrition labels and find healthy alternatives for foods that may contain trans fat.
Why Is Olive Oil Considered Good Fat?
Olive oil is promoted as a healthy alternative to other cooking oils because of the monounsaturated fatty acids it contains.
Olive oil is the principal fat source of the Mediterranean diet, which is proven to have lasting health benefits, such as reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and preventing the onset of diabetes and cancer. (6)
Some research indicated that olive oil increases the levels of high-density lipoproteins (HDL) in the body, which positively affect the body’s cholesterol levels. (6) Olive oil is a versatile oil that can be used for cooking and baking.
A healthy diet contains a balance of different nutrients, including fats. Therefore, it is advised to consume healthy fats in the form of olive oil, soybean, avocado, fish, etc. Avoid foods that are high in saturated or trans fats.