Of all the food groups, fat is the most commonly misunderstood. We’re taught to believe that our obesity problems and related health conditions come from eating too many fats. As a result, many people avoid any kind of oils or fats in their weight-management programs. The truth is, however, that fats are crucial to numerous areas of health. They just have to be the right kind. Here’s how to know the difference.
Monounsaturated Fats (MUFAs)
Monounsaturated fats are generally liquid at room temperature and are found in many oils such as flax, sesame, olive and sunflower at various ratios, along with polyunsaturated fats and saturated fats. Some studies suggest that consuming foods with MUFAs can support healthy cholesterol, balance insulin and control blood glucose.
Polyunsaturated Fats (PUFAs)
Polyunsaturated fats are found mostly in vegetable or grain oils as well as some fish oils. They demonstrate benefits similar to MUFAs; essential fatty acids such as omega-3 and omega-6 fats fall into this category.
Essential fatty acids are critical for health, and the body doesn’t produce them on its own. They’re obtained from foods such as flax, chia and other seeds; certain nuts and fish, and other foods. A balanced ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 is critical for preventing chronic illness, but unfortunately our modern diets are laden with omega-6 (abundant in many commercial vegetable oils) and deficient in omega-3s. This can be a dangerous ratio leading to chronic inflammation, free radical damage and related conditions. A good solution is to supplement with additional omega-3 oils to balance this ratio. Some nutritionists even recommend a completely balanced, 1:1 ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 to address inflammation, cardiovascular health and more.
Contrary to popular belief, a small to moderate amount of saturated fats in the diet can support cellular integrity, cardiovascular health, immunity, vital energy and other critical areas of health. Found mainly in animal fats, coconut oil and other tropical oils, saturated fats are more solid at room temperature. Importantly, they make good cooking oils, particularly clarified butter (called ghee in India) and coconut oil. That’s because these fats remain relatively stable at higher temperatures, which means they don’t easily become rancid during cooking. This is very important, because healthy fats can be dangerous when they turn rancid — the molecular structures of the oils change, and wreak havoc on cells and tissues.
The Dangers of Trans Fats
The worst fats are trans fats and their newest relatives, “interesterified” fats. These fats are created from chemical processes used in food manufacturing, designed to give oils and processed foods a longer shelf life. Trans fats should be avoided completely: They fuel inflammation, disrupt cell signaling and interfere with numerous critical functions. Furthermore, the body has a difficult time processing and eliminating them, meaning they can build up and potentially contribute to weight gain, unhealthy LDL cholesterol levels, chronic inflammation and arterial plaque. They’re associated with diabetes, heart disease, immune dysfunction and other serious conditions.
How to Use Healthy Fats
Total healthy fat intake should be roughly 25 % of your daily calories.Use raw olive oil or flax oil in salad dressings, added to soups or drizzled on cooked foods. Try chia seeds, which are some of the highest sources of omega-3s, and add some avocado to a fruit smoothie. Snack on raw walnuts throughout the day and incorporate wild, cold-water fish such as salmon into your diet. You can also look for supplements containing balanced ratios of essential fatty acids, but pay attention to dosage and don’t overdo it. A modest amount of healthy fat in the diet goes a long way.
What about High Cholesterol?
In moderation, good fats may help reduce elevated LDL (bad) cholesterol, improve HDL (good) cholesterol and can help improve cardiovascular markers. Certain healthy fats, such as coconut oil, may actually help burn fat and promote a balanced weight. Furthermore, healthy fats can help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, a critical component in promoting heart health and protecting against cardiovascular disease.
The Bigger Picture
We naturally crave fats for a reason. They provide us with critical nutrients, offer a source of energy, and form the building blocks of cells, tissues and organs, especially in the brain and nervous system. Healthy fats, such as olive oil, have been used therapeutically for millennia. In Eastern medical traditions, oils infused with therapeutic herbs and compounds play a very important role both internally and externally, helping to restore health physically, mentally and emotionally.
Our views of good nutrition are evolving, with new research findings and a resurgence of interest in time-honored dietary wisdom. As such, our understanding of the importance of healthy fats is also expanding – while keeping the bathroom scale in check.