Some people look at all dietary fat as a “four-letter” word. Especially since every 45 seconds someone has a heart attack and a high fat diet has been associated as a leading risk factor. It’s important to note that all dietary fat is not created equal and the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends keeping total fat intake between 20 – 35% of your total calories.
Why do we need fat in our diet?
Fat is an important source of energy and is needed for the production of certain hormones. It aids in the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins, A, D, E and K. Fat also provides the essential fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6), meaning our bodies cannot make these and we must obtain them through diet intake. So what are the good, the bad, and the ugly fats?
Let’s start with the “good”, both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
There is much debate on which is the best between these two types of fat, but both are in the “good” category. Monounsaturated fat food sources include olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil, avocados, nuts and seeds. This type of fat is known to decrease your LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels. It also has shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke and helps in controlling blood sugar. Polyunsaturated food sources include vegetable oils such as safflower, corn, sunflower, soy and cottonseed oils, nuts and seeds. These fats also have shown to reduce LDL levels.
The essential fatty acids, omega-3 and omega-6, are also part of the polyunsaturated group. Both omega-3 and omega-6 play an important role in growth, development and brain function. Food sources for omega-3 fatty acids are fatty, cold-water fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna and herring), flaxseeds, flax oil and walnuts. Studies have shown this type of fat helps to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. They also may lower blood pressure levels.
Omega-6 fatty acids are plentiful in our diet. In fact, many experts say the American diet is too high in omega-6 and too low in omega-3. To help keep this balance in check include 2-3 servings of omega-3 foods every week. Food sources for omega-6 fatty acids include vegetable oils, soft margarines, and foods made with these oils. Omega-6 is linked to lower blood levels of total and LDL cholesterol.
The “bad” fats are saturated and the AHA recommends less than 7% of your daily calories come from this fat.
Food sources include animal products (meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy products, lard and butter), and coconut, palm and other tropical oils. The “bad” label is because saturated fat has shown to increase your risk of heart disease by increasing your total cholesterol and your LDL cholesterol levels.
Now for the “ugly”, which is trans fat.
There are no guidelines for trans fat in our diet. Although the AHA recommends no more than 1% of you daily intake should come from trans fat, for a 2,000 calorie diet that is just 2 grams a day. Trans fat raises your LDL level and lowers you HDL “good” cholesterol levels, which increases your risk of heart disease and it has also been associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Read the whole label! If a product advertises “0% trans fat” that may not be true. In fact, if a single serving has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat it is legal to state “trans fat free”. Just think if you eat 2-3 servings of the product through out the day you may be getting close to 1.5 grams of trans fat that day (in just that one product). Look at the ingredient list, if you see the words “hydrogenated”, “partially hydrogenated”, or “shortening” this product has trans fat, even though the “Nutrition Facts” label will list “trans fat 0g”.
Dietary fat is an important part of our daily intake.
Remember the AHA guidelines: no more than 20-35% of daily calories should come from fat and aim to have 7% or less saturated fat. Concentrate on the “good” fat monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and the essential fatty acids, omega-3 and omega-6. And do your best to keep trans fat out of your diet – read the labels.