There are many misconceptions about fats. With so much misinformation and so many fad diets, it can be easy to become confused about fats, their purpose and the differences between types of fat. In addition to potentially affecting your fitness goals, fats can impact both your short-term and long-term health. Understanding the difference between good fat and bad fat can help you make the best decisions for your health and well-being.
What Are the Different Types of Fat?
Although some people think that all fats are the same, and therefore that all fats should be avoided, this isn’t the case. There are different types of fats, and these fats come from different products and work differently in the body. Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are considered to be “good” fats because of their health benefits (in moderation), whereas saturated fats and trans fats are considered to be “bad” fats because virtually any quantity of them can be detrimental to one’s health.
Olive oil has "good" fats - we'll get into that in a minute.
Does the Body Need Fat?
In the pursuit of losing weight or living a healthier lifestyle, some people may decide to eliminate fats from their diets entirely. However, it’s important to understand that fat is an important component to a healthy body. Healthy fats help our body to function, providing us with energy. Cutting fat entirely out of your diet, or reducing it to a too-scant level, can have negative consequences like a slowed metabolism, elevated blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and brain fog.
Nut butters are good sources of healthy fat that you need for energy (just avoid the ones with tons of added sugar!).
Additionally, some vitamins and nutrients are fat-soluble, which means the body needs to take in these vitamins (such as vitamins A, D and E) with fat. Although supplements are an option, the body tends better to absorb vitamins that come from food rather than vitamins in the form of supplements. Unsaturated fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats) can also help reduce “bad” levels of cholesterol, known as LDL cholesterol, and can increase levels of “good” cholesterol, known as HDL cholesterol.
What Type of Fats Should You Avoid?
Fitness and appearance aside, for health reasons you should avoid trans fats and saturated fats. In high amounts, these fats can increase your risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and other conditions that can negatively impact your health. Trans fats are considered by many to be worse for one’s health than saturated fats, and it’s suggested by the Mayo Clinic that people try to consume as few grams of trans fats as possible. Though small amounts of saturated fat are generally safe to consume, the amount of fat that is safe for one person to consume could put another person at risk. In order to get a personalized estimation, it’s often helpful to speak with your physician in order to get an idea of how many grams you can safely consume per day.
Examples of foods with high levels of saturated fats and trans fats include, but are not limited to:
- Fried foods
- Certain cuts of meat, especially red meat
- Whole milk
- Many packaged/processed foods, including frozen pizzas, pastries, fast foods, non-dairy creamers and frosting
Whether or not you're watching your fat intake, as a general rule of thumb, if your entire meal can be described as "tan" it's probably not healthy.
What Type of Fats Can Be Beneficial?
Though fat can have a negative impact on your health, there are types of fats, like unsaturated fats, that can actually benefit your health. In addition to lowering your levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and helping to increase levels of HDL (good) cholesterol, these types of fats can improve the appearance of your skin and helps your body function optimally.
Just because you recognize the difference between good fats versus bad fats doesn’t mean that you should consume excessive amounts of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Even though some fats are beneficial to your health, even fats that are monounsaturated or polyunsaturated are higher in caloric value when compared to carbs or protein.
Examples of foods with good fats include:
- Nuts and seeds
- Dark chocolate
- Whole eggs
- Cheese and yoghurt
- Olive oil
High in fat, high in deliciousness.
The Big Fat Debate
One final topic that deserves to be touched on in any blog covering fat in the diet is that the age-old question: “Does eating fat make me fat?” If you’re trying to make weight for a martial arts competition or fight, or simply want to lose those few extra pounds that snuck on over the winter, this becomes a key inquiry!
Online, the debate rages on: studies say yes. Studies say no. You can find testimonies of people claiming to have lost both absurd and healthy amounts of weight on low-fat diets, and high-fat ones.
The answer is: yes and no. Yes, eating too many calories from any source, fat included, can cause weight gain. Foods that contain bad fats are also usually unhealthy for plenty of other reasons, and should be largely avoided for health reasons anyway.
But no, fat isn’t the enemy, either. Healthy fats are necessary and beneficial, and many times preferable to a low-fat option. For example, a slice of whole wheat toast topped with half an avocado and two ounces of smoked salmon has around 16 grams of fat (along with around 20 grams of protein and 36 grams of carbs). If your plan is weight loss, you might be tempted to go with a small, 2-gram-of-fat juice from a popular juice bar instead. Except that’s a bad plan because your “healthy” juice could contain over 30 grams of sugar, and very little (if any) protein.
Moral of the story: finding the perfect balance is hard. If you’re trying to lose weight or fat for health reasons, or to compete, it’s probably best to talk with your doctor or coach to tailor a plan specifically to you.
In general, understanding the difference between fats can help you make healthier choices when it comes to your diet. Many people find that moderation is key in their diets, and that having a diet that includes a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, proteins and fats can help you look and feel your best. With knowledge about why fats are helpful and the type of fats that can benefit you and the types of fats that could be detrimental to your health, you can make educated decisions about what foods you consume. Overall, making consistent, healthy choices can improve your long-term health.