Nutrition 101: Dietary Fats

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a low-fat revolution swept through the US. Dietary fats, especially saturated fats, became the scapegoat for the nation’s rising obesity rates. This lead to an explosion of low-fat and fat-free “health foods,” and fat-phobic Americans – hoping this was the solution for their growing waistlines – hastily eliminated any source of fat from their diets.

Fast forward 20 years and now – at least most of us – know better. We know that low-fat diets don’t lead to lower incidences of cancer and heart disease. We know that they also don’t reduce rates of obesity (which have been on the rise since the late 80s to a current all-time high). We know that fats aren’t bad per se; rather, the type of fat is what is important.

There are four major types of dietary fats: saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and trans fats.

Saturated fats

•    Butter
•    Egg yolks
•    Meat
•    Full fat dairy (cheese, cream, milk, etc.)
•    Coconut and palm oil

Saturated fats are not the artery-clogging, heart attack-inducing toxins health experts once labeled them as, and recent research has found no statistically significant relationship between saturated fat intake and cardiovascular disease. As well, many cultures that consume high amounts of saturated fats including Masai (red meat and whole milk), Eskimos (seals), and Pacific Islanders (coconuts) have almost non-existent rates of heart disease. If you want to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, start by eliminating refined carbohydrates and trans fats from your diet, quit smoking, manage stress better, lose weight, and engage in daily physical activity.

Saturated fats should make up 33% of your dietary fat intake.

Monounsaturated fats

•    Vegetable oils (safflower, sunflower, etc.)
•    Avocados
•    Olive oil
•    Canola oil
•    Peanuts and peanut oil
•    Nuts (almonds, cashews, etc.)

The health benefits of monounsaturated fats are still under investigation, but there is evidence that they can lower low density lipoproteins (LDL; “bad cholesterol”), raise high density lipoproteins (HDL; “good cholesterol”), and reduce your risk for heart disease.

Monounsaturated fats should make up 33% of your dietary fat intake.

Polyunsaturated fats

•    Fatty fish and fish oil (omega-3 fatty acids)
•    Flaxseed and flaxseed oil
•    Walnuts
•    Seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, etc.)
•    Wheat germ

Polyunsaturated fats – especially the omega-3 fatty acids – reduce your risk for cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic and inflammatory diseases. They also improve cholesterol levels and can enhance cognitive function.

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Polyunsaturated fats should make up 33% of your dietary fat intake.

Trans fats

•    Margarine
•    Hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils (found in many processed foods)

Trans fats are highly processed toxins that elevate LDL and increase your risk for heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes, and other chronic diseases.

Trans fats should make up less than 1% of your dietary fat intake.

Consuming natural sources of dietary fats, including saturated fat, is an important part of a healthy, wholesome diet. A 1:1:1 ratio of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats is ideal, and eliminating or significantly reducing your consumption of trans fats is a great way to improve your health and prevent disease.