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Good Fats vs Bad Fats and How to Know the Difference

We’ve come a long way from the super low-fat diet trend of the late 1980s. We now understand that fats are an extremely important part of anyone's diet. They are essential for the absorption of several vitamins, to keep skin and hair healthy, and they provide us with essential fatty acids that our bodies cannot make. But not all fats are created equal. There are so-called ‘good’ fat and ‘bad’ fats. ‘Good’ fats are touted for major health benefits, including decreasing bad cholesterol and blood triglycerides, reducing inflammation, and lowering blood pressure. Eating too many ‘bad’ fats will increase bad cholesterol and blood lipids and increase the risk for heart disease and death. But which fats are good, which are bad, and where do you find them?

There are three main groups of fats: trans fats, saturated fats, and unsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats can be further broken down into two types: monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) and polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs). Read on for the essential information about each type.

Trans Fats: Trans fats are the worst type of fat for health. They are almost exclusively man-made from a process known as hydrogenation, which makes fats more solid and shelf-stable. Trans fats are cheap, tasty, and last longer than other fats, making them a dream for the food industry. Unfortunately, they aren’t a dream for our bodies. Trans fats not only lower good cholesterol, but they also raise bad cholesterol and cause inflammation. A recent study found that eating trans fats increases the risk of all-cause mortality (the risk of dying from any cause) by 34% and coronary heart disease mortality by 28%.1 Because of these negative effects, it is recommended to avoid eating trans fats entirely. Despite the recent ruling by the FDA that trans fats aren’t safe, they are still found in many commercially processed and packaged foods, including muffins, cookies, brownies, cakes, and crackers. The trans fat content must be listed on the nutrition facts. However, some foods are labeled with 0g of trans fat, when they may have up to 0.5g trans fat per serving. Therefore, if you eat more than one serving, you could be consuming significant amounts of trans fats. The best way to avoid trans fat is to read the ingredients label. Look for the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oils and shortening on the label and avoid these products.

Saturated Fats: Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and are found mostly in animal products—such as fatty meats, full or reduced-fat dairy products, lard, cheese, and butter—as well as a few plant-based sources—including coconut oil and palm oil. Consuming too much saturated fat has been shown to increase bad cholesterol, which increases your risk for heart disease. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Committee recommends consuming less than 10 percent of your total calories from saturated fat.2 So for a 2000 calorie diet, that’s no more than 22 grams of saturated fat. Saturated fat is always listed on nutrition labels, so check out how much is in the packaged food you’re eating. Remember, nutrition information is per serving, so be sure to take the number of servings into account when calculating total saturated fat. (Serving sizes can be found at the top of the nutrition facts label).

Unsaturated Fats: Unlike saturated fats, unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. Eating unsaturated fats has many benefits, including lowering bad cholesterol, increasing good cholesterol, and reducing inflammation. Someone with diabetes should aim to eat mostly monounsaturated fats, found in foods like olive oil, canola oil, avocado, peanut butter, and many nuts and seeds. It’s also important to eat omega-3s, one type of polyunsaturated fats, found in foods like salmon, flax seeds, and chia seeds.

Being mindful of your fat intake helps to maintain a healthy weight. So be sure to choose healthy mono- and polyunsaturated (mostly omega-3) fats as often as possible. Your body and health will thank you for it.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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