For quite a while, everyone believed that fats were bad for us. So we diligently endeavored to remove lard, bacon grease, butter, and everything tasty from our diets and replace them with margarine (yuck) and vegetable oil (tasteless). As it turns out, our bodies do need fats as part of a healthy diet in order to function properly. And there was much rejoicing! Except for one thing: we have to eat the right kinds of fats. In fact, there are several different types of fat, some “good” and some “bad”, and being able to tell them apart could mean the difference between acquiring some unwanted baggage (high cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes, a BMI that’s off the scale) and staying healthy, fit, and satisfied for life.
There are four basic types of fats: monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated, and trans fats. With all of the recent laws banning trans fats from fast food and other restaurants, you have probably realized by now that these fall into the bad category. They are formed when liquid oils are hydrogenated for better preservation and they are often found in fried foods (French fries, more’s the pity) and prepackaged foods like margarine (yup, turns out butter is better). So if you suspect that some of your grocery purchases contain these harmful fats, you will definitely want to check the label and cut them out of your diet.
Saturated fats are almost as bad for you. They are found in mainly in animal products like meat, dairy, and eggs, but can also come from certain plant oils such as those extracted from coconut and palm. Together with trans fats, saturated fats spell trouble for your body. While they definitely enhance the taste of your food as well as residing in some items that have healthy benefits (animal products are a good source of complete proteins) they have the unfortunate side effect of raising your cholesterol, especially LDL, which as you may have guessed, is the bad cholesterol. In fact, it is for this reason (amongst others) that most nutritionists now espouse a largely vegetarian diet, with a drastic reduction in animal products, specifically meat. Luckily, there are many substitutes (beans, quinoa, etc.) that can give you the protein you need without the fat.
But what about good fats? Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fall into this category. Monounsaturated fats are found in nuts, avocados, and olive oil, all of which are pretty tasty. Polyunsaturated fats come mainly from fish and fish oils, but can also be found in many vegetable products such as soy, corn, and sunflower oil. These types of fats do just the opposite of the bad variety. They not only help to lower your LDL cholesterol, they can also help you to lose weight when consumed in moderation.
In truth, even good fats should not be ingested in huge quantities. Fats are still fats and if you follow the advice of the food pyramid, even one serving per day may be too much, as the advised intake is listed as “use sparingly”. It’s up to you to decide what goes into your body, and even knowing the difference between the types of fats you consume is a good start. Just remember that finding “good” fats doesn’t mean you should go hog wild. Keep your fat ingestion to a minimum if you want to enjoy the health benefits that good fats can provide.