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Good fats, bad fats, and what they mean for you

Updated: Jan 31

When we hear that weight gain is on the rise or are reminded to eat better, it’s tempting to lay the blame on fat. We resolve to cut out all fattening foods and spend more time in the fresh foods section of the grocery store. We pat ourselves on the back when we buy something that is labeled “low fat,” or, even better, “no fat.”

But fat isn’t quite the villain we’ve made it out to be. For starters, not all fat is bad—some fats are not only good for us, but essential. As backward as it sounds, you can’t have a healthy diet without fat.

The key is to eat the right kinds of fat, and in the right quantities.

What fat does for the body

Fat is an essential macronutrient that helps the body absorb vitamins. As the body’s most efficient energy source, fat creates no insulin response and digests more slowly than carbohydrates, which is why a high-fat food will keep you feeling satiated longer than a high-carb food will.

Fat performs other important functions as well:

  • Keeps your body warm

  • Boosts energy

  • Promotes heart and brain health

  • Supports healthy cell membranes

As you can see, fat does a lot of good for the body, so eliminating all fat from our diets shouldn’t be the goal. Instead we should focus on avoiding certain types of fats.

The good fats

There are four types of fat: saturated, trans, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated.

Let’s start with the good: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, otherwise known as unsaturated fats. These types of fats tend to be liquid at room temperature and are predominantly found in olive oil, nuts, seeds, and fish.

Unsaturated fats are good because they perform the functions listed above, which is why they are essential for a healthy diet.

You’ve probably heard of fatty acids, too—where do they fall on the spectrum of good and bad fats?

Fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats, so they definitely fall on the good side. Fatty acids contain omega-3s, which are the building blocks of fat in the body that support a variety of roles in the body, from the cardiovascular system to the brain. The recommendation is to eat fish a few times a week to make sure you’re getting those essential omega-3s.

The bad fats

This leaves us with saturated and trans fats, which are the “bad” fats. These fats are usually solid at room temperature and are found primarily in animal products (saturated) and processed foods (trans).

Small amounts of saturated fats are found in common foods like meat, milk, cheese, and coconut oil. These foods often contain important nutrients like protein and calcium, so there are still benefits to eating foods with some saturated fats. Just try to limit it where you can. The American Heart Association recommends getting about 5–6% of our daily calories from saturated fats.

Trans fat is the true villain we should try to vanquish from our lives. This is the “man-made” fat, meaning it contains partially hydrogenated oil, which is what causes the oil to be solid at room temperature. It is found in processed foods, fried foods, and a lot of baked treats. Some popular and truly delicious foods, to be sure—but at a heavy cost to our health. Which is why we’re advised to avoid them.

So if you remember nothing else from this article, it’s that trans fat should be avoided as much as possible.

Healthy sources for good fats

Many foods are good sources of unsaturated fats, which is good news for us. Shoot for getting about 30% of your calories from fat, most of which should come from unsaturated fat. This includes any of these foods:

  • Avocados

  • Eggs

  • Dark chocolate

  • Fish

  • Seeds/nuts

  • Beans

  • Extra virgin olive oil

If you know you’re eating more saturated and trans fats than you should, try to replace them with unsaturated fat sources if you can. This could mean having eggs be your protein source for the day rather than beef, or using an avocado spread on your sandwich instead of mayo.

The bad fats to avoid

Fat sources like beef, milk, cheese, and coconut oil do contain some saturated fats, but it’s okay to eat these foods sparingly. But watch out for foods with a high amount of trans or saturated fats, like these:

  • Fried foods, especially french fries, chicken wings, and donuts

  • Baked goods like cookies, cakes, and pies

  • Frozen pizza

  • Processed foods (including a lot of items you’ll find on a fast food menu)

  • Margarine

  • Shortening

  • Microwave popcorn

If you’re unsure whether a product has trans fat, check the ingredient list. If it lists partially hydrogenated oil, then put the item back on the shelf.

3 things to remember about good fats and bad fats

What to eat, what not to eat, how much to eat—there’s a lot to keep track of when it comes to fats. But fats are too important, and too prevalent, for us to just ignore. So to keep it simple, remember these three things:

  1. Fat is an essential part of a healthy diet, as long as it’s the right kind of fat.

  2. Unsaturated fats are the good fats and should make up about 30% of the calories you consume each day.

  3. Trans fats are the bad fats you should avoid as much as possible.

This will help you strike the right balance and ensure you’re getting the fat your body needs to function, without being overloaded with the fats that are unhealthy.

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