For years, we’ve heard that fats lead to weight gain and poor health outcomes. However, recent studies suggest that this may not always be the case. Below, our weight loss specialists explore those findings and reveal why some fats are essential for a healthy diet.
The Public Perception of FatsFat contains more calories by weight than any other nutrient. Hence, past generations favored fatty foods because they were the most efficient way of getting energy. Then, in the 1940s, wartime rationing restricted countries’ access to these items. Rates of heart disease also decreased, leading researchers to draw a connection between fats and this life-threatening condition. The Seven Countries Study, for example, was a landmark analysis that found saturated fats increase not only cholesterol levels but also the risk of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease (CVD). They also uncovered other risk factors of CVD including high blood pressure, tobacco usage, and weight gain. Although the study established that not all fats are harmful—just certain types—it has since been taken out of context by nutritionists, journalists, and policymakers alike. Now, there are many inaccurate oversimplifications of the nutrient. Recent findings are rectifying this miscommunication, though, by establishing a difference between “healthy” and “unhealthy” fats.
Healthy Vs. Unhealthy FatsYou need fat to survive. This nutrient helps your body absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K which, in turn, fortify bones and prevent disease. It also protects vital organs, insulates the body, and acts as energy storage. Not all fats are created equal, however. Some harm your body—and heart health, in particular—while others are part of a well-rounded diet. Let’s explore the differences.
Unhealthy FatsThere is one main type of unhealthy fat: trans fat. Research shows that, over time, trans fats raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol and decrease high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or “good” cholesterol. They are primarily found in foods that contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oils such as:
- French Fries, Donuts & Other Fried Foods
- Margarine & Vegetable Shortening
- Cookies, Cakes & Pastries
- Microwave Popcorn & Other Processed Snacks
Healthy FatsThere are three types of healthy fats: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and typically animal-based. Although the aforementioned Seven Countries Study vilified it, current research suggests that this nutrient may not be directly linked to heart disease after all. In fact, it can raise HDL cholesterol when consumed in moderation. Other studies show that saturated fats have additional health benefits besides good cholesterol. For example, a 2010 analysis found that saturated fat intake lowered the risk of stroke in 58,453 adults over a 14-year period. Likewise, saturated fats—or, more specifically, medium-chain fatty acids—have been found to improve cognitive performance for people with mild forms of Alzheimer’s disease. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, on the other hand, are liquid at room temperature. They come mainly from vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fish, but we’ll get into specific foods in a later section. During the aforementioned Seven Countries Study, researchers noticed that Greece and other Mediterranean areas had low rates of heart disease despite locals enjoying high-fat diets. The primary fat in their diet was not animal-based as was common in many countries with high rates of CVD. Rather, it was olive oil—a monounsaturated fat. Since then, research has shown that monounsaturated fats lower LDL and maintain or raise HDL. Likewise, polyunsaturated fats lower total cholesterol. The nutrient comes in two varieties—omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids—which offer their own benefits. Omega-3s, for example, reduce the risk of heart disease by thinning the blood and preventing platelets from clogging the arteries. They also prevent the hardening of arteries and may decrease blood pressure. Omega-6s decrease LDL cholesterol, especially when eaten in place of trans and saturated fats. Your body cannot produce either of these fatty acids on its own, so they need to come from your diet. Despite all the benefits of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats, many still worry that this nutrient will make them gain weight. But, according to our team, the opposite is often true.
How Healthy Fats Support Weight LossYour body can’t digest fats right away—it takes time. Consequently, this nutrient slows the emptying of the stomach and reduces appetite and hunger. When you substitute carbohydrates for healthy fats, your body also produces less insulin, causing it to burn more fat for energy. Healthy fats are also needed to produce adiponectin. This hormone not only increases the rate at which fats are broken down but also boosts your overall metabolism. Low-fat diets, on the other hand, slow the production of adiponectin. So if you want to lose weight, talk to your doctor or a weight loss professional about increasing your daily fat intake.
Examples of Healthy FatsAs established, healthy fats play a crucial role in not only basic body functions but also weight loss. If you’re looking to trim your waistline, try adding these foods to your diet:
- Coconut Oil Coconut oil is a saturated fat. It is rich in medium-chain fatty acids that are easy to digest and may boost memory and brain function. The ingredient is most commonly used to replace margarine, shortening, and oil. It also leaves behind a delicate yet tropical flavor that enhances any entrée, side dish, or pastry.
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil Olive oil is a staple of the Mediterranean diet discussed in the Seven Countries Study. Additional research conducted in 2013 found that extra virgin olive oil, in particular, significantly reduced one’s risk of heart attack and CVD. Additionally, the ingredient contains a high amount of antioxidants that protect your cells from the harmful effects of free radicals.
- Butter While it has a bad reputation, butter isn’t all bad. Butter from grass-fed or organic sources, for example, contains both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids that support brain and skin health. It’s also full of fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K.
- Ghee If you are sensitive to lactose, try ghee, or clarified butter. This food contains high levels of K2, a vitamin that strengthens bones. Plus, ghee has a nutty flavor that pairs well with savory dishes.
- Avocados Avocados are one of the healthiest fruits out there. They are packed with both monounsaturated fats and protein, meaning they raise good cholesterol and increase satiety. Try putting some avocado on your morning toast for extra energy.
- Salmon Fresh salmon and other cold-water fish like sardines and flounder are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and are easy to prepare. If you don’t like seafood, talk to your doctor about taking a fish oil supplement, so you get enough of this essential nutrient.
- Nuts Walnuts and almonds are great ways for vegans and vegetarians to get enough omega-3 fatty acids in their diets. Try adding some toasted, unsalted nuts to your salads for added crunch and a boost of healthy fats.
- Seeds Flaxseeds and chia seeds are both high in healthy fat and fiber but low in carbs. Plus, they make a great addition to yogurt and smoothies!
- Eggs Eggs, like avocados, are rich in both protein and healthy fat. They also contain omega-3s and vitamins D and B-12. A 2016 study found that adults over 40 who regularly ate eggs had a lower risk of metabolic syndrome which is a cluster of conditions that increase one’s risk of CVD, stroke, and diabetes.
- Dark Chocolate As mentioned previously, dark chocolate contains saturated fat and should be eaten in moderation. Still, it contains antioxidants that prevent cell damage. The flavanols in this sweet treat also improve heart health.
Medically reviewed and written by:
Dr. Jason Olafsson D.C.
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