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Nutrition Month: Good Fat, Bad Fat, High Fat, Low Fat - Why is it so Confusing?

A quote from “Today’s Dietitian”:

“Nutrition science is gradually shifting from focusing on isolated nutrients to considering how all the nutrients and other elements of a food work together to promote or prevent disease.”

We are bombarded by all kinds of nutrition information and misinformation. What are the facts about fat? Is it healthy or unhealthy? It depends on the type of fat! I hesitate to focus on just one nutrient; as our eating patterns (also known as our “diets”) do not just consist of “nutrients” on our plate. Ideally, we eat real, whole foods, not isolated nutrients. As it turns out, we need dietary fat, as well as healthy carbohydrates and protein. While some research would suggest that certain fats may be implicated in some diseases such as cardiovascular disease and Type 2 Diabetes, still others debate the degree to which they are associated with chronic diseases. So, instead of only concentrating on dietary fat, try to consider your overall eating pattern and your physical activity, in addition to your genetic predisposition to certain medical conditions. I will, however, include some basic information about fat.

Fats 101

What are the roles of fat in the body?

  • Fat provides us with energy (or “calories”)

  • It helps us absorb nutrients such as Vitamins A, D, E, and K (also known as “fat soluble vitamins”)

  • It’s necessary in essential hormone production

  • It provides organ protection

  • It also provides insulation for temperature regulation (to keep us warm!)

  • Fat is also necessary in cell growth and brain health

  • Certain types of fat are “heart-healthy” and anti-inflammatory

What are the different types of fat?

Unsaturated fats have traditionally been described as healthy fats; and they include Mono-unsaturated fats (“MUFA”) and Poly-unsaturated fats (“PUFA”). These fats can help reduce LDL-cholesterol, which contributes to plaque formation in the arteries, which may be associated with an increased risk of atherosclerosis or cardiovascular disease. A simple way to remember LDL- cholesterol, is to think of “L” as “lousy” or bad cholesterol. Unsaturated fats can also increase protective HDL-cholesterol (think of “H” as “healthy” or good cholesterol). Keep in mind that systemic inflammation is believed to play an important role in chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, as well. Recent research has indicated that we derive greater benefit from consuming foods that are rich in the following beneficial fats, compared with supplements.


An important part of the heart-healthy Mediterranean Diet. These fats can also help lower blood pressure. MUFAs are found in foods such as:

· Olive oil (Extra Virgin Olive Oil or EVOO, is the most beneficial kind of olive oil)

· Nuts & seeds (e.g., almonds, pecans, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds)

· Nut butters

· Avocados and avocado oil

· Canola oil


Omega-3 Fats

Saturated Fats

There appears to be some conflicting evidence about these types of fats. These have traditionally been considered to be unhealthy or “bad fats”; however not all saturated fats are created equal. Some research studies indicate that certain saturated fats, if consumed in excess, can increase the risk of systemic inflammation, and some chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, Metabolic Syndrome, and Type 2 Diabetes.

The unhealthy saturated fats are found in:

  • Lard

  • The fat on meat (and also gravy – think of that white fatty layer that forms at the top of gravy when cooled)

  • The fat under poultry skin

  • Processed or Deli meats

  • Butter (sorry…)

Note: the saturated fat found in milk or yogurt apparently does not have these same harmful effects (according to current research).

Trans Fats

Trans fats occur naturally in some foods such as milk or yogurt. Trans fats can also be manufactured during food processing; for example: when hydrogen is added to a liquid vegetable oil to make it more solid and stable at room temperature (think of shortening…). This process is known as “hydrogenation”, and unfortunately, unhealthy trans fats are formed in the process. These trans fats are also known as “manufactured”, “synthetic”, or “industrial” trans fats; and they are very unhealthy. Try to avoid “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” in the list of ingredients of packaged foods such as crackers, cookies, or commercially baked goods; as this means that the product contains unhealthy trans fats. They increase the bad cholesterol (LDL); and they decrease the good cholesterol (HDL); whereas naturally occurring trans fats have not been shown to have these same harmful effects.

Note: HDL-cholesterol is considered to be the “Healthy” or good cholesterol, due to the fact that it collects some of the cholesterol in the arteries, and transports it to the liver, which helps to eliminate it from the body.

Now That we Know About Fats, What Do We Do?

Try to look at the big picture. Instead of focusing on a specific type of fat, consider the overall quality of your diet. Remember, we don’t eat isolated nutrients; we should be eating whole foods that contain different combinations of nutrients that interact with each other to support good health. However….

  • Research shows that populations with the lowest risks of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular (heart) disease, Type 2 Diabetes, and certain cancers, tend to consume more unsaturated fats (MUFAs, PUFAs, and Omega-3 fats) and less saturated fat and trans fat. Diets such as the Mediterranean Diet, which centers around more plant-based foods such as legumes (e.g., kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas, hummus, etc.), nuts and seeds, whole grains, olive oil, and fruits and vegetables; as well as fatty fish, are associated with:

o Reduced risk of Heart disease

o Reduced risk of Diabetes

o Lower risk of cognitive decline or memory loss

o Reduced belly fat (central obesity)

o Improvement in body composition

o Reduced risk of certain types of cancer

  • Fats have a place in a healthy, well-balanced diet.

  • There is such a thing as too much of a good thing though; as high fat diets have been shown to negatively affect the quality of the healthy gut bacteria, which can lead to systemic inflammation, and affect overall health.

Tips to help you include healthier fat in your diet:

  • Choose healthy unsaturated fats (MUFAs, PUFAs, Omega-3 fats) more often, rather than saturated fats or industrial trans fats

  • Make your own healthy salad dressing with olive oil, Balsamic vinegar, and herbs; instead of creamy dressings

  • Cook / bake with healthy, liquid oils (olive oil, Canola oil, Walnut oil, Avocado oil) instead of solid fats

  • Include nuts and seeds in your diet, in order to add protein and beneficial fats. Limit portions to about ¼ cup, though. Note: choose natural peanut butter (peanuts at the only ingredient), rather than peanut butter that contains added salt, sugar, and partially hydrogenated fat.

  • Add chia seeds or ground flax seed to hot cereal, yogurt, smoothies, and baked goods.

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