The Skinny on Healthy Fats

Article at a glance

  • The “fat-free” trends in the 90s lead many people to banish fat from their diet all together thinking that this would improve their health, but the opposite was true as health quickly diminished and rates of obesity and diabetes exploded

  • The public health perspective of dietary fat has shifted over time and it is important to understand the current research to determine which fats should be included in your diet daily, and which fats should be limited or eliminated from your diet.

  • Unsaturated fats found mostly from plant sources, marine algae, and fatty fish are friends and should be eaten daily. Trans fats found mostly in prepackaged and industrial baked goods are foes and should be avoided all together. Saturated fats found mostly in animal sources like meat and dairy are frenemies and can be eaten in moderation. 

The Skinny on Healthy Fat

Many people likely remember the “fat-free” trend of the 90s. These low-fat diet recommendations were based, in part, on the idea that eating fat makes you fat. For years we were urged to banish fat from our diets, but this shift didn’t make us healthier. In fact, overall public health decreased. This is likely because while we did cut back on some harmful fats, we cut back on healthy fats too, and we replaced fat with processed sugars and other harmful additives.

The clinical evidence and public health perspective of dietary fat has shifted since then, and research has discovered that while not all fats are created equal, it is imperative for us to eat “healthy” fats daily. Fats are necessary for several body functions and are needed to absorb vitamins and minerals, build cell membranes, and support nerve conduction in our brains, to name a few. Let’s take a look at the current research to determine which fats are friends or foes.

 Unsaturated fat = Friend

 Unsaturated fat is “healthy” fat and for the context of this article, we will discuss the two most popular unsaturated fatty acids, Omega-3 and Omega-6. Omega-3s are essential fats, meaning that our body cannot produce them, and we must obtain them from our diet. They can be found in three forms; ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), which is found in vegetable oils and nuts; or EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which is found in marine algae and fatty fish. The majority of human health benefits stem from EPA and DHA.

DHA plays a primary role in brain and eye development, and ensuring that desired amounts are met may reduce risk of age related eye degeneration and age related decay of brain mass and function. Furthermore, Omega-3s have been found to improve mental health by decreasing risk of depression, improving symptoms of anxiety, improving risk for heart disease, and fighting inflammation. These fats should be eaten daily.

Omega-6 fatty acids are also essential and can be found in vegetable and cooking oils. While Omega-6s work with Omega-3s to provide health benefits, the modern western diet contains far more Omega-6s than necessary. An imbalance of Omega-6 to Omega-3 can create a pro inflammatory state which may contribute to human disease. The recommended ratio of Omega-6:Omega-3 is 4:1 while the majority of the western world comes in at a ratio of 16:1. The best way to improve this ratio and decrease risk for inflammation is to increase intake of Omega-3s in the diet.

Trans-fat = Foe

Trans-fat is mostly formed through an industrial process which causes natural oils to be solid at room temperature, making it less likely to spoil so foods can have a longer shelf life. Trans fats are found mostly in baked goods, bagged snacks, fried food, creamers and margarines.

Trans-fat is the “bad” fat and has been found to increase LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, lower HDL (good) cholesterol levels, and increase risk of heart disease. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has determined that industrial trans-fats are no longer “recognized as safe” and should not be eaten and be phased out of production of food over time.

Saturated fat = Frenemy

Saturated fats are found naturally in animal products such as meat, diary, and butter. For decades dietary saturated fats have been assumed to cause heart disease by raising cholesterol levels in the blood, yet this theory has been up for debate over the recent years. Several large studies have been conducted to determine the true link between saturated fats and heart disease and the conclusions still seem a bit muddy.

 

Some studies have found no direct association between saturated fat and heart disease. However, there is a catch. While these studies determined that simply reducing saturated fats in the diet had no effect on cardiovascular risk, it was also found that replacing saturated fat in the diet with unsaturated fat did reduce the risk of cardiovascular events by up to 14%. This does not imply that saturated fats are “bad”, but that unsaturated fats like Omega-3s are “protective”. Although there is still controversy around saturated fats, the American Heart Association recommends limiting them to less than 5% of your daily calories.


Stacy Cappadona MS, RD, CSCS received her BS in Exercise Science and MS in Exercise Physiology and Sports Nutrition from Florida State University. She has worked with athletes of all ages, active duty military personnel, and is now serving people globally through virtual coaching programs as the Founder of Stacy Rae Wellness.