Fats are one of the three main macronutrients that humans need to survive and grow, along with carbohydrates and proteins. They’re also incredibly misunderstood: fats were vilified for years due to the link between high-fat diets and elevated cholesterol, but are now lauded as essential to our health.
So, which is it? Are fats good for you, or bad? Can fats find a place in a comprehensive nutritional plan?
There are no easy answers to these questions, as not all fats are created equal. Different types affect the human body in different ways; some are essential to the body’s function, while others hinder it. To understand how fats fit into your diet, it’s important to understand what each type does.
Monounsaturated fats are found in avocados, nuts, seeds, peanut butter, and various oils. In the 1960s, these fats came into vogue thanks to the famous Seven Countries Study that popularized the Mediterranean diet. Monounsaturated fats are thought to decrease the risk of heart disease.
Like their cousins, polyunsaturated fats can be found in numerous natural foods, like salmon, trout, walnuts, tofu, and soybeans. They also boast many of the same health benefits, including positive effects on cholesterol levels and reduced heart disease risk. Importantly, polyunsaturated fats include omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, which contribute to overall brain and body function. Both mono and polyunsaturated fats should have a place in your nutritional plan.
Saturated fats, which are found in cheese, lamb, pork, butter, red meat, and whole dairy products have fewer health benefits and remain associated with increased risk of heart disease. Diets that are high in saturated fats can also lead to high cholesterol. Some researchers are unconvinced of saturated fats’ negative impacts on the body, however, though they have also struggled to identify positive ones.
The true villains of the fat family are trans fats. These are definitively linked to high cholesterol and heart disease and have no known health benefits. They can be found in some of your favourite treats, including doughnuts, cookies, crackers, and frozen pizza.
Consistently eating a diet that is high in trans or saturated fats can lead to weight gain, elevated cholesterol levels, and increased risk of heart disease. However, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) believes that monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated fats all have a place in a healthy diet. It recommends consuming 20 percent of your daily calories in the form of healthy fats, while capping saturated fat intake at less than 10 percent.
“Because fat has nine calories per gram (compared to four calories per gram of protein or fat), it’s true that a little goes a long way,” registered dietitian Jessica Cording told Women’s Health. “To prevent weight gain, make sure you’re consuming it in an amount that fits within the context of your daily calorie needs.”
In other words, it’s time to end any lingering stigma around fats. Delicious foods like salmon, avocados, walnuts, and even cheese or red meats can – and should – be a part of your nutritional plan.