Fats. Are they good? Are they bad? The debate has been raging for decades, and its history is a bit odd. Starting in the late 1970s, there was a major shift in the way Americans viewed their diets. 

Thanks to an increase in deaths due to heart disease in Congress, lawmakers were eager to find a solution to help themselves and their fellow Americans escape such health issues. Without a full understanding of the complexities of the issue or accurate studies to back up such a massive shift in the national diet recommendation, an enemy was found, and that enemy was fat. Thus, the “fat-free boom” was born.

Unfortunately, the campaign against fats and an increase in the availability of fat-free and low-fat foods did not have the health benefits intended, and in many ways made matters worse as dieters increased their intake of simple carbs and sugars.

Today, we have a much better understanding of the different types of fats and how they operate in the body. With this knowledge, we can now make informed decisions about the types of fats we do and don’t consume.

Understanding Cholesterol

Much like how there are good fats and bad fats, there is also “good cholesterol” and “bad cholesterol.” To understand why different types of fats can be helpful or harmful we must first review the two types of cholesterol:

  • HDL (high-density lipoproteins) is the good kind of cholesterol. It functions by bringing cholesterol back to the liver to be removed from the body.
  • LDL (low-density lipoproteins) is the bad kind, which is prone to building up and clogging the arteries, leading a variety of health problems.

What Are Good Fats?

The two types of healthy fats that our bodies need most, or “good fats,” are monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Oils that are comprised of good fats tend to be liquid at room temperature, such as olive oil. Both types of good fats work to raise HDL cholesterol levels and lower LDL cholesterol levels. They also reduce triglycerides, a type of fat in your blood that is stored for later use. An excess of unused triglycerides can harden arteries. 

The Benefits of Good Fats

Good fats can help the body:

  • Produce energy
  • Absorb vitamins and minerals
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Build cell membranes and nerve sheaths
  • Reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke
  • Improve brain function

While we do derive energy from sugars and carbs, fat is necessary for giving the body energy as well, especially when at rest or during low-intensity exercise. (Clin Sports Med. 1984 Jul;3(3):605-21.)  Good fats are also essential for the processing of fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E, and K. Since good fats reduce bad cholesterol and increase good cholesterol, they are essential for helping us reduce our risk of diseases such as heart attack and stroke.

Studies show DHA, a type of omega-3 fatty acid, supports brain function in developing infants and in adults as well. A proper intake of DHA is linked to higher IQ, while a deficiency in DHA has been linked to poor brain function and learning disabilities such as ADD/ADHD and Dyslexia. (Christiane Northrup. “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom”.  724-725)

Sources of Good Fats

Monounsaturated Fats

  • olive oil
  • canola oil
  • avocados
  • high oleic safflower oil
  • nuts
  • sesame oil

Polyunsaturated Fats(PUFAs): Omega-6 Fatty Acids

  • sunflower oil
  • sunflower seeds
  • pumpkin seeds
  • hemp seeds
  • tofu

Polyunsaturated Fats(PUFAs): Omega-3 Fatty Acids

  • fish such as cod, salmon, herring,  anchovies, mackerel
  • chia seeds
  • flax seeds
  • walnuts
  • fish oil supplements
  • algae
  • cod liver oil (normally a supplement)

The Risks of Bad Fats

good fats vs bad fats
Making decisions and choices for lifestyle and eating habits.

Trans Fats

Trans fats are the worst kind of fat for the human body. Trans fats result when healthy, liquid fats are hydrogenated and turned into solid fats. Artificial trans fats were once common in various kinds of margarine and vegetable shortening and used in processed foods and fast foods. Artificial trans fats have since been banned in the US, but trans fats do still occur naturally in some milk and meat products.

Trans fats affect cholesterol in the reverse of the way good fats do. That is to say, trans fats raise LDL, or bad cholesterol levels and lower HDL, or good cholesterol levels.  Trans fat can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke and may be linked to a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Trans fats provide no positive health benefits and as such, organizations such as the American Heart Association recommend as little intake of trans fats as possible.

Saturated Fats 

Saturated fats fall somewhere in the middle gray area between good and bad fats. They raise levels of both good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. Oils with saturated fat are often solid at room temperature. The American Heart Association recommends keeping the levels of saturated fats relatively low, to about 5-6% of your daily caloric intake. When it comes to saturated fats, it’s all about balance. As long as your diet contains enough good fats and other vitamins and nutrients, a bit of butter or red meat here and there are fine for the average person. 

Saturated Fats are a complicated subject because everyone’s body reacts differently, but this is what we do know. Coconut oil is a medium chain fatty acid which is good for the metabolism. Coconut oil is also a natural antimicrobial and it’s safe to use with high heat cooking.

There is a movement saying PUFAs are actually bad for us due to their heat labile nature. These oils will be damaged if used with cooking temperatures which are too high for that particular oil and then become unhealthy for us to consume.

Foods with saturated fats include:

  • red meats such as pork, lamb, and beef
  • poultry with skin
  • whole milk and whole milk products
  • coconut oil
  • baked goods that use whole milk products
  • lard

Additional Considerations When It Comes to Good and Bad Fats

Medical knowledge is constantly evolving, so it’s important to always keep up-to-date on the latest findings. As doctors and researchers begin to learn more about the nuances of the way different nutrients affect the body, more and more evidence is coming to the surface dealing with not only heart attack and stroke, but such illnesses as MS, cancer, and various other ailments such as autoimmune diseases.The best balance of nutritional choices can vary from person to person, so working with a Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine can help you navigate these choices with the help of a knowledgeable professional. If you are in the Washington DC area, Contact Dr. Karen Threlkel today to find out more about our holistic health services.

About The Author:

Dr. Karen Threlkel

Dr. Karen Threlkel

Dr. Threlkel received her degree of Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine from The National College for Naturopathic Medicine (now called The National University of Natural Medicine) in Portland, Oregon. She also holds a Bachelor Degree in Kinesiology from The University of Maryland. She is licensed in Naturopathic Medicine by the Government of the District of Columbia Department of Health. Dr. Threlkel is a member of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians, past president & current member of the Washington DC Association of Naturopathic Physicians.

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