Hannah Pullman - Community Manager
A few people have recently asked me about fats and what are the different types of fats. So, I am going to write this post about the different fats, which ones are good for you and which ones to avoid.
First, fatty acids are the main component of fat. There are three types of fatty acids: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. These fatty acids are defined by their saturation – the amount of hydrogen attached to the carbon atoms on the fatty acid.
Saturated fatty acids, commonly known as “bad fats,” have carbon chains completely packed with hydrogen. These fats are linked to increases in heart disease and some cancers and are mainly found in animal products. Most plant foods contain very little saturated fats (except for coconut and palm oils).
Then there are monounsaturated fats, commonly known as “good fats.” These fatty acids are missing one hydrogen atom on their carbon chain and are generally liquid at room temperature. They have been shown to protect against diseases, like heart disease, and are neutral or beneficial in relation to cholesterol levels. High levels of these fatty acids are found in olives, olive oils, avocados, and nuts.
Trans fatty acids, a fat damaging to one’s health, are a type of unsaturated fatty acid that has had their hydrogen atoms rearranged during food processing. This processing allows the fats to withstand higher temperatures, ideal for high temperature cooking and deep-frying. These fats are much more damaging than saturated fats, raise blood cholesterol levels, and are linked to heart disease. The main sources of these fats are processed and fried foods.
The third type of fat is polyunsaturated fatty acids. These fatty acids have more than one hydrogen atom missing from their carbon chain and are involved in the functioning of the brain and nervous systems and the regulation of organs. They are mainly found in vegetable oils, seeds, nuts, grains, legumes and other plants. Two important polyunsaturated fatty acids are linoleic acid (omega-6) and alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3). For optimum health you should have a good balance of both, however western diets tend to favor linoleic acid. If you are vegetarian or vegan, common sources of linoleic acids are seeds, walnuts, butternuts, corn, and soybeans. Good sources for alpha-linolenic acid are dark leafy greens, broccoli, seaweeds, flax, nuts and soybeans. If you are not vegetarian you can consume long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids directly from meat and dairy products (sources of omega-6) and by eating fish or microalgae (sources of omega-3).
So the question remains, “what fats and how much of them should we eat?” Most health experts recommend 15-30% of your daily calories come from fats. However, the type of fats consumed is very important. Studies have shown that a diet lower in fats, especially lower in saturated fats, trans fatty acids, cholesterol and animal protein, decrease the risk of heart attacks and strokes. So, try to avoid saturated and trans fatty acids – avoid eating processed and deep fried foods, decrease meat and dairy consumption, and eat more nuts and fresh vegetables.
A good source for what foods to eat and avoid in terms of fats and their effects on health, go to the American Heart Association.