Fats and fatty acids are beneficial for our health. More and more research is beginning to show a strict departure from the information we received throughout the second half of the 20th century when fat was demonized and processed, low-fat meats and dairy reigned supreme.
Now that we are starting to understand the nuances of fats, there’s a lot of literature out there about various types of fats. Saturated, unsaturated, omega-3s, omega-6s—it’s hard to keep everything straight.
While there are many different kinds of fats out there, we can boil it down to a few basic types. Here’s a breakdown of the kinds of fats you need to know about, how they’re different and which ones you should be eating the most of.
Saturated fats have gotten a bad reputation, but we do need them to survive.
“In recent years, the assumption that saturated fat is unquestionably bad for you has been challenged,” states the science blog Compoundchem. “The original study that prompted the guidance of many of the world’s governments has been criticised for scientific flaws. Today, it remains unclear how big a factor saturated fat is with respect to heart disease.”
Saturated fats are generally found in animal products, though they’re also present in some vegetable oils, such as coconut oil. Saturated simply means that the fat molecule doesn’t have a carbon-carbon double bond. Their molecular structure makes them longer and less flexible than unsaturated fats, so they are thought to be more likely to clog arteries as they transport cholesterol molecules. Due to this structure, these fats harden into solids at room temperature. This is why your coconut oil hardens when it’s cold out and why lard and dense animal fats do the same.
Unsaturated fats, in contrast to saturated ones, contain at least one carbon-carbon double bond. How many of these bonds they contain determines whether they are classified as monounsaturated or polyunsaturated.
Monounsaturated Fats: Monounsaturated fatty acids have one such bond in their chemical structure. These fats are thought to be remarkably healthy—they’re present in many Mediterranean foods, such as avocados and olive oil. Studies have hinted that increasing your intake of these fats does wonders for heart health.
Polyunsaturated Fats: Polyunsaturated fatty acids, or PUFAs, are also important. We’re about to go into yet another breakdown here: The much-talked-about omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are both examples of PUFAs.
- Omega-6 fatty acids are essential, meaning that although our bodies need them to survive, we can’t manufacture them. This means that we must get them from our food. Omega-6s can be found in animal products, wheat and vegetable oils. However, omega-6s are inflammation-promoting. While we need them to survive, it’s ideal that we have a 1:1 ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s in our diet—and the typical American diet is strongly biased toward omega-6 intake. The University of Maryland Medical Center says that our country’s typical diet includes a ratio of up to 26:1. This is why so many people supplement with omega-3s.
- Omega-3 fatty acids are also essential, so we need to derive them from the food we consume. These fats are generally found in nuts, fish, whole grains and seeds. To increase your omega-3 consumption without supplementing, try swapping out poultry for fish, upping your intake of nuts and seeds, and decreasing your consumption of red meat.
And then there are trans fats. While trans fats occur in very trace amounts in some dairy products, the majority of the trans fats we hear about are artificially engineered. Creating a trans fat means introducing hydrogen to an otherwise polyunsaturated fat in a process called hydrogenation. This turns the fat into a saturated one, and it’s a process often performed on processed vegetable oils.
“These trans fats tend to raise levels of LDL in the blood, and have been associated with a cardiovascular health risk, to the point where their introduction into foods has been banned in a number of countries,” Compoundchem states. “Denmark has already eliminated commercial sources of trans fat, and in the US the FDA has recently followed suit, giving manufacturers 3 years to remove added trans fats from their products.”
So, that’s fats in a nutshell. There’s still a lot of research being done on fats and their role in our health, but from the information we know so far, we know that we should:
- Not be afraid to eat fats. They are necessary for cellular and brain health, and beneficial for healthy aging.
- Limit our intake of saturated fats to semi-regular consumption. This means eating meat-free meals and flavoring with olive oil (rather than butter) when we can.
- Get plenty of monounsaturated fatty acids through olive oil, avocados, fish and nuts.
- Try to even out our ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s by reducing meat consumption and eating the monounsaturated fats mentioned above.