Growing up in the 80s and 90s I remember the promise of “low fat” or even “zero fat” plastered on everything from crackers to ice cream (spoiler alert: non-fat ice cream takes the joy right out of any summer day). Fats were portrayed as the evil soloist in a symphony of nutritious advice. It was the only cause of heart disease, obesity and probably even cancer. Everything wrong with our health in general was traced back to dietary fats. We were cautioned to throw out the whole milk and embrace skim (or as I called it, “cloudy water”), fear eggs (unless we only ate the white parts) and swap out our butter for a yellowish substitute (personally, I could believe it wasn’t butter). Decades later the dietary landscape has shifted, and popular diets recommended for health are now high in fat. So, are fats good for you or bad for you? The answer, to put it simply, is it depends on the kind of fat you’re eating.
What are the different kinds of fats?
Here’s the deal, not all fats are the same. There are several different kinds of fats found in our food:
Ready for a quick chemistry lesson? All fats have fatty acids. Fatty acids are chemical compounds with a long chain of carbons and hydrogens. Saturated fats are called “saturated” because they have more hydrogens than unsaturated fats due to the kind of bonds holding the carbons together. There are only single bonds between all the carbon atoms in saturated fats. Unsaturated fats have one or more double bonds (one double bond in monounsaturated fats and more than one double bond in polyunsaturated fats) making them a weaker structure and easier to break down. Trans fats are unsaturated fats that have had the chemical structure of the fatty acids artificially changed making it more like saturated fats.
The point of the chemistry lesson above is that unsaturated fats are healthier than saturated and trans fats. The weaker bonds in unsaturated fats make them liquid at room temperature and easier for your body to manage.
Why are healthy fats important?
We need to eat healthy fats in our diet! They are needed for so many different systems to work properly. Healthy fats:
- Give your body energy
- Help your brain function
- Keep your hair and nails strong and healthy
- Allow your body to absorb essential nutrients like fat-soluble vitamins (A, K, D and E)
- Control inflammation and clotting
Eating healthy fats can also protect us from heart disease (you were wrong 80s and 90s!). When we go for a checkup, our doctors often check our blood cholesterol levels, to measure our risk for heart disease. Healthy LDL (low-density lipoprotein) levels should be less than 100 mg/dL for both men and women. Healthy HDL (high-density lipoprotein) levels should be more than 40 mg/dL for men and more than 50 mg/dL for women. LDL in our blood is important as it brings needed cholesterol to our cells, but too much of it can clog up our arteries. Think of cotton balls going through a paper towel tube. One or two can pass through without issue, but too many will get clumped up together blocking the opening. HDL is the hero of cholesterol. It comes through to clean out the excess cholesterol by bringing it to the liver, which then removes it from your body. Imagine a marble knocking the cotton balls out of the way in our earlier example. Both mono and polyunsaturated fats lower your LDL levels and increase your HDL levels.
What foods have healthy fats?
Now that we know certain fats are important for our health, what foods are they in?
Monounsaturated fats are found in plant-based foods. Some healthy and delicious options include:
- Peanut butter
- Olives and olive oil
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sesame seeds
Polyunsaturated fats can be found in both plant and animal sources:
- Flax seeds
- Hemp hearts
- Chia seeds
It’s important to remember to not just include healthy fats but replace unhealthy fats in our diet with them. Many highly processed foods use saturated and trans fats as they are more shelf stable. A quick look at a nutrition label will tell you how much saturated and trans fat is in a food you are thinking of buying.
If you need help navigating what are the healthiest options for you reach out to us at Atomic Pilates and Chiropractic for information on our nutrition accountability program. We would love to help you reach your health goals to keep you fit and feeling good!
Author: Tammy Rampton, RN, BSN
Rampton Medical Writing