While it is a common assumption that fat should be avoided at all costs, dietary fats are an essential nutrient—and an important part of a balanced diet. Not only do fats provide a potent source of energy, they also serve an important role in helping the body absorb nutrients from other foods, like the antioxidants and vitamins found in your favorite veggies.
So instead of avoiding dietary fat, a healthier approach is to focus on the dietary fats most beneficial to the body while avoiding the less healthy ones.
Here’s the 411 on the four types of dietary fats:
- Monounsaturated fats. Olive oil lovers can rejoice: Olive oil, as well as canola, peanut, safflower and sesame oils, are all monounsaturated fats. They can also be found in avocados, peanut butter and pumpkin seeds. Not only are they an excellent substitute for saturated fats like butter, but studies suggest they can have a beneficial effect on your cholesterol and overall health.
- Polyunsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats are also considered to be a healthy fat. Like monounsaturated fat, they help decrease bad cholesterol and also provide vital nutrients like vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids. Soybean, corn and sunflower oils are a good source of polyunsaturated fats, as are the fats found in nuts, seeds and soybeans. And don’t forget cold-water fishes like salmon and trout. They also contain fats of the polyunsaturated variety.
- Saturated fats. Saturated fats are found in animal products like beef, pork, cheese and butter—and also in that new heath fad darling, coconut oil. Palm oil, which is increasingly found in chips and other processed foods, is also rich in saturated fats. Studies have consistently shown that excessive consumption of saturated fats can raise levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, the so-called “bad” cholesterol, increasing your risk of cardiovascular disease. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting daily intake of saturated fats to five to six percent of the calories you consume each day.
- Trans fats. Do you see partially hydrogenated oils listed on that food’s ingredient list? Then you are eating a trans fat—one of that fats that has been linked to a high risk of cardiovascular disease. While the Food and Drug Administration has attempted to ban trans fats from manufactured processed foods, you will still find them in fast food options (particularly French fries), vegetable shortening, frozen pies, cookies and microwave popcorn. The AHA recommends avoiding trans fats whenever possible.
While you may have been raised on the idea that fats as a whole are the dietary enemy, new studies show that is not the case. In fact, when the majority of your fat intake comes in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated varieties, fats play an important role in promoting good health.