By Holley Grainger, M.S., R.D.
Fat can be confusing. For a long time, fat — any fat — was the enemy; now, researchers say certain types of fat are a necessary part of a balanced diet. Here’s help decoding each type of fat: saturated, unsaturated and trans fat.
Saturated fat is typically solid at room temperature.
Health note: The old adage that eating too much saturated fat can raise your risk of heart disease has been contested recently — and now saturated fat is believed to be more benign than we originally thought. Still, it’s typically calorie-dense, so it’s best to enjoy saturated fat in limited doses.
Food sources: Tropical oils (e.g., coconut, palm), butter, fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, coconut milk.
Monounsaturated fat is typically liquid at room temperature, but solid at cooler temps.
Health note: This fat helps to improve cholesterol levels, therefore lowering your risk of heart disease. It also controls blood sugar by improving insulin levels.
Food sources: Avocados, nuts and seeds, and peanut, olive and canola oils.
Polyunsaturated fat is liquid at any temperature.
Health note: There are many types of polyunsaturated fats, but two — omega-3s and omega-6s — are essential, meaning our bodies don’t make them, so we need to get them in our diet.
Omega-3 fat: The omega-3s EPA and DHA have a long list of science-backed benefits. They can help lower triglycerides, blood pressure and heart disease risk, as well as quell inflammation and improve mood.
Omega-6 fat: Higher intakes of omega-6s may improve insulin resistance, reduce diabetes risk and lower blood pressure. We get plenty of omega-6s in our diets and having an even balance of omega-6s and 3s is recommended, so for optimum health, concentrate on increasing foods with omega-3s in your diet.
Food sources: Soybean, corn and sunflower oils, and packaged foods made with these oils.
There are naturally occurring trans fats found in small amounts in butter and meat. The bulk of them, however, are produced by adding hydrogen to the chemical structure of vegetable oils, thus making them more solid.
Health note: Eating trans fat raises your “bad” LDL cholesterol, but also lowers your “good” HDL cholesterol — and raises your risk of heart disease. Avoid these completely.
Food sources: Listed as “partially hydrogenated” oil in ingredient lists of processed foods, such as cookies, cakes, crackers and margarine. Trans fats can still be found in foods touting “0 grams trans fat.” Always check the ingredient list for partially hydrogenated oil to be sure you’re not unintentionally ingesting trans fats. (Manufacturers can round down if there’s 0.49 gram or less per serving.)
(EatingWell is a magazine and website devoted to healthy eating as a way of life. Online at www.eatingwell.com.)