Good vs. Bad Fats: What’s the Difference?
It may sound counterintuitive to many people focusing on losing weight, but certain fats are actually good for the body.
That’s right, your diet actually should contain good fats. Confused? No need to worry, this article will explain the role of healthy fats in the diet, the specific types we should focus on, and the best sources for our bodies.
What are bad fats?
There are two fats that we consider “bad fats”, saturated fats and trans fats.
Saturated fats are those that are solid at room temperature. Diets high in saturated fat have been linked to chronic disease, specifically, coronary heart disease and raising LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 recommend consuming less than 10 percent of daily calories as saturated fat, while the American Heart Association advises to less than 7 percent. This type of fat is found in certain high-fat cheeses and meat, whole-fat dairy products, and palm and coconut oil.
Trans fats are fats that are created when manufacturers turn liquid oils into more solid fats like shortening and margarine. Although small amounts of trans fats occur naturally in beef, lamb, and full-fat dairy products, most comes from processing liquid vegetable oil to become a solid fat. Similar to saturated fats, trans fats raises LDL cholesterol and increases the risk of heart disease. But unlike saturated fats, trans fats lower HDL (good) cholesterol and may do more damage to the body. The American Heart Association advises limiting trans fat consumption to less than 1 percent of daily calories.
What are good fats?
Good fats are polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, which are fundamental for proper nerve activity, vitamin absorption, immune system function and healthy cells.
Monounsaturated fats help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol while also boosting HDL (good) cholesterol. Polyunsaturated fats are also thought to help lower total and bad cholesterol, and often are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids.
These good fats work by turning certain genes on and off, which regulates fats and carbohydrate metabolism, supporting the body’s anti-inflammatory response, and even changing the actual characteristics of cholesterol. Heart health thus can be ameliorated by healthy balanced fat consumption.
Omega-3 fatty acids are considered “essential fatty acids,” because our bodies cannot manufacture them, so they must be consumed in the diet because the body doesn’t make it on its own. Omega-3 fatty acids are thought to lower blood pressure, combat LDL (bad) cholesterol, fight inflammation and protect the brain and nervous system.
Fats to focus on: the ratio
The different types of fats to focus on regard balancing these fatty acids, in what many people call the omega-6/omega-3 ratio. Omega-6 fatty acids are also considered essential, as the body cannot manufacture them itself, but should be consumed in fewer quantities than what is considered normal today.
Our western diet is full of omega-6 fatty acids, making the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 essential fatty acids between 15:1 and 16.7:1 when it really should be as closer to something between 2:1 and 4:1. A ratio close to 1:1 has been found to suppress the pathogenesis of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.
In general, hormones derived from the two classes of essential fatty acids have opposite effects. Those from omega-6 fatty acids tend to increase inflammation, blood clotting, and cell proliferation, while those from omega-3 fatty acids decrease those functions. Both families of hormones must be in balance to maintain optimum health.
Overall, we should be focusing on reducing omega-6 fatty acids and displacing them with omega-3s.
Best sources of essential fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fatty, oily, coldwater fish (salmon, trout, catfish, mackerel) and nuts (flaxseed and walnuts).
Fish oil contains the most effective, long-chain types of omega-3 fatty acids: EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). These are the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and are the immediately available end product fatty acids, which promote health among multiple organ systems.
For this reason, the American Heart Association recommends eating 2 servings of fatty fish each week. Supplements can offer a viable solution to the challenge of getting as much as needed.
If supplements are the choice for your diet, make sure the product is a trustworthy. Look for high quality fish oil supplements with high purity and concentration, done with molecular distillation, and those that are third party tested. There can be a big difference between brands.