Many Americans are under the impression that “fats” is a four-letter word … a substance that must be shunned in your diet if you want to stay thin and avoid heart disease and other health issues. But this misguided nutritional dogma could actually be putting your health at risk, as all fats are NOT created equal — and, in fact, some fats are absolutely essential for your body to function optimally.
Which Two Fats Really Should be Avoided?
1. Trans Fats (Hydrogenated and Partially Hydrogenated Fats)
In the realm of fats, there are two types you should definitely try to limit in your diet, the first being trans fats.
Trans fats are a synthetic type of fat found in margarine, shortening, fried foods like french fries and fried chicken, doughnuts, cookies, pastries and crackers. Anything that contains hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil also contains them.
Trans fat poses various serious health risks. It raises your body’s level of bad cholesterol (LDL) while scrubbing away the good cholesterol (HDL) that keeps your arteries clean. Your arteries can become clogged, making them inflexible, which can lead to strokes and heart attacks.
Trans fat can also increase triglycerides and inflammation, a direct link to an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease.
While many food manufacturers have removed trans fats from popular processed foods in recent years, there is a labeling “catch” you should know. The FDA allows food manufacturers to round to zero any ingredient that accounts for less than 0.5 grams per serving. So while a product may claim to be “trans-fat-free” it can legally contain up to 0.5 grams per serving. While this may seem like an insignificant amount, over time this small fraction can add up, especially if you eat more than one serving at a time.
A good rule of thumb? Trans fat is formed when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil, a process called hydrogenation. So if a food label lists hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fat or oil, it contains trans fats in some level, even if the label says “0.” Avoid such foods at all costs.
A National Academy of Sciences panel actually ruled that trans fats are so dangerous, the only “safe” level is zero, so it could not set a safe daily intake level. Rather, they recommend that people consume as little trans fat as possible.
2. Refined Polyunsaturated Fats from Vegetable Oils
You may have been expecting to see saturated fats as the second dietary villain, but polyunsaturated fats are actually what you should look out for.
Polyunsaturated fats (omega-6 fats), which are found in soybean oil, canola oil, safflower oil, cottonseed oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, and others, are typically described as heart healthy — they may help to reduce cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of heart disease — BUT they are often highly processed and are quite perishable.
This means that the fats easily become rancid, and rancid fats may contribute to oxidative stress and damaging free radicals in your body. Further, when polyunsaturated fats are eaten in excess, as they are in the typical American diet, they can lead to the formation of excess prostanoids, which are chemicals that increase inflammation in your body.
One study published in Psychosomatic Medicine even found that people with more omega-6 fats in their blood compared to omega-3 fats (which we’ll discuss shortly) were more likely to suffer from depression and have high levels of inflammation-promoting substances like tumor necrosis factor alpha and interleukin-6 — which increase your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, arthritis and other diseases.
Which Fats are Your Friend?
While you should strive to reduce trans fats and polyunsaturated fats from refined vegetable oils in your diet, the following fats should be a regular part of your healthy diet.
1. Omega-3 Fats
Omega-3 fats, found in fish and fish oils and also some plant foods, are excellent for your heart. They’re anti-inflammatory and make blood less likely to clot inside arteries, prevent erratic heart rhythms, and prevent cholesterol from becoming damaged or oxidized.
Omega-3 fats have also been found to reduce the risk of many other health conditions including macular degeneration, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, certain types of cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and more.
When consuming omega-3 fats, it’s important to be sure you’re getting some in the animal-based form, as opposed to only the plant-based form found in flaxseeds. Flaxseeds are rich in alpha linolenic acid (ALA), a type of omega-3 fat, while the omega-3 fats in fish oil, cod liver oil and krill oil are called DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). It’s these latter two forms of omega-3 that seem to be responsible for most of the benefits, such as helping to prevent heart disease, cancer, diabetes, depression, Alzheimer’s disease and more.
Getting back to flaxseeds, ALA is a precursor to EPA, which means it is converted to EPA in your body. When converted, it can provide the benefits that EPA has to offer, BUT only a small percentage actually gets converted.
So, in order to receive the same benefits of the omega-3 in fish oil, cod liver oil or krill oil, you would need to take in A LOT of flaxseeds. This is the drawback to consuming omega-3 fats in plant form, even though flaxseeds are often — and somewhat misleadingly — thought of as a superior form of omega-3 fat.
2. Monounsaturated Fats
Most everyone agrees that monounsaturated fats, the kind found in avocados, olive oil, seeds and nuts, are exceptionally healthy and should definitely be included in your diet.
Increasing foods that contain these healthy fats can raise your HDL levels without harming your total cholesterol. Further, according to the American Heart Association:
“Monounsaturated fats can help reduce bad cholesterol levels in your blood and lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. They also provide nutrients to help develop and maintain your body’s cells. Monounsaturated fats are also typically high in vitamin E, an antioxidant vitamin most Americans need more of.”
3. Saturated Fats
The health benefits, or lack thereof, of saturated fats is one of the most hotly debated topics among conventional and alternative medicine practitioners.
According to the American Heart Association, saturated fats are the main dietary cause of high blood cholesterol, but the “lipid hypothesis,” the one that claims foods high in saturated fats drive up your cholesterol levels, which clog your arteries and lead to heart disease, may be based on entirely flawed science.
In his book The Cholesterol Myths, Uffe Ravnskov, MD, PhD explained that Ancel Keys, who performed the study upon which the Lipid Hypothesis is based, used cherry-picked data to prove his point that countries with the highest intake of animal fat have the highest rates of heart disease.
According to Keys this is what the data showed, but Dr. Ravnskov revealed that the countries used in the study were handpicked, and those that did NOT show that eating a lot of animal fat lead to higher rates of heart disease were left out of the study, leading to entirely skewed, and faulty, data.
So, many experts actually believe that saturated fats are good for you. They’re necessary for energy, hormone production, and cellular membranes, among other biological functions, and according to Mary Enig, PhD, your diet should contain at least 25 percent of fat as saturated fat.
The Weston A. Price Foundation expands on the many roles of saturated fats:
“Contrary to the accepted view, which is not scientifically based, saturated fats do not clog arteries or cause heart disease. In fact, the preferred food for the heart is saturated fat; and saturated fats lower a substance called Lp(a), which is a very accurate marker for proneness to heart disease.
Saturated fats play many important roles in the body chemistry. They strengthen the immune system and are involved in inter-cellular communication, which means they protect us against cancer. They help the receptors on our cell membranes work properly, including receptors for insulin, thereby protecting us against diabetes. The lungs cannot function without saturated fats, which is why children given butter and full-fat milk have much less asthma than children given reduced-fat milk and margarine. Saturated fats are also involved in kidney function and hormone production.
Saturated fats are required for the nervous system to function properly, and over half the fat in the brain is saturated. Saturated fats also help suppress inflammation. Finally, saturated animal fats carry the vital fat-soluble vitamins A, D and K2, which we need in large amounts to be healthy.
Human beings have been consuming saturated fats from animals products, milk products and the tropical oils for thousands of years; it is the advent of modern processed vegetable oil that is associated with the epidemic of modern degenerative disease, not the consumption of saturated fats.”
A Low-Fat Diet May Cause Heart Disease and Depression
It’s very important that your diet include a variety of healthy fats, as adhering to the low- and no-fat craze of decades’ past could put your health at risk.
Numerous studies have linked low-fat and low cholesterol diets to increased risks of depression, suicide and aggressive behavior. And one of the largest studies on low-fat diets — a $415-million federally funded study of close to 49,000 women — found that those who ate a low-fat diet had the same rates of breast cancer, colon cancer, heart attacks and strokes as those who did not limit their fat intake, and no changes in weight gain or loss were observed between the groups either.
Further, a new study presented at the American Dietetic Association’s (ADA) Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo in 2010 revealed that replacing saturated fat in your diet with carbohydrates may actually increase your risk of heart disease.
So it’s very important that your diet includes plenty of healthy fats if you want to stay optimally healthy and protect your heart. You can get most healthy fats by eating a wide range of animal foods, fish, olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocado, but you may want to supplement with additional omega-3, such as:
- OmegAvail Lemon Drop Smoothie: A delicious tasting, high potency, emulsified fish oil product with superior bioavailabilityOmegAvail™ Lemon Drop Smoothie is a wonderful option for children and those who prefer not to swallow pills. It is also very convenient to use, as it quickly dissolves for easy mixing in water, juice, or blended beverages. It may also be taken alone.
- OmegAvail Synergy: Enhanced with the addition of lipase, a digestive aid, this unique formula contains a blend of wild deep-sea sourced fish oils containing the omega-3 fats (EPA/DHA) in theTruTG™form, the omega-3 fat alpha linolenic acid (ALA) from flax seed oil and the most important omega-6 fat, GLA, from borage oil.
Remember, fats are not your enemy and many are actually your friends. If you want to support your heart health, your mood and your long-term health, consuming healthy fats is a smart choice and a veritable necessity.
Center for Science in the Public Interest July 10, 2002
FoodNavigator-USA.com November 16, 2010
Psychosomatic Medicine March 30, 2007
The Weston A. Price Foundation: Principles of Healthy Diets
Psychology Today April 29, 2003
JAMA. 2006 Feb 8;295(6):629-42.
JAMA. 2006 Feb 8;295(6):643-54.
JAMA. 2006 Feb 8;295(6):655-66.