Not all fats are created equally. We’ve all heard these jumbles of words before. Polyunsaturated fats, trans-fatty acids, and omega-3 fatty acids. We know the general rules of thumb when it comes to fat intake—which oils to avoid and fish to target, which processed food to leave on the supermarket shelf. And yet, fats—all fats—remain a classic culprit in our society, often lumped together without distinction and blamed for every malady from cardiovascular disease and obesity to diabetes and colon cancer.
The truth is fats are a necessary component to a healthy diet—serving as a concentrated source of energy, promoting good vision and strong bones, helping sustain a normal core temperature and delivering essential fat-soluble vitamins. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that adults get 20%-35% of their calories from fats, though the typical American currently fills 40% of their diets or more with fats.
The Fat Breakdown
Fats can generally be broken down into two broad categories—harmful (saturated and trans-fat) and healthy (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated).
Occurring naturally in many foods, saturated fats come primarily from animal sources, including dairy, meat and vegetable fats that are liquid at room temperatures such as coconut and palm oils. Generations of medical research have linked this type of fat to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, as saturated fats raise total cholesterol levels. There is some controversy in the medical community over saturated fats. Some studies have found no evidence that these fats directly contribute to heart disease.
Trans Fatty acids
While trans fats are naturally occurring in some foods in small amounts, the vast majority of trans fat that enters our diet does so through a food processing method called partial hydrogenation. These ‘artificial’ trans fats are found extensively in fried food, baked goods, cookies, icings, packaged snacks, and microwaved popcorn—pretty much every guilty pleasure! Research has linked trans fat to an increase of heart disease, an increase in LDL levels (i.e. the ‘bad’ cholesterol) and a decrease in HDL (i.e. the ‘good’ cholesterol) levels.
Unsaturated Fats (monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats)
If you’ve ever heard of the Mediterranean Diet, then you already know about monounsaturated fats (MUFAS). These heart-healthy fats are found in olive oil, avocados, and nuts and seeds. While this fat—as all fats—should be consumed in moderation, research has linked monounsaturated fats with lower instances of heart disease, benefitting insulin levels and assisting in blood sugar control.
Polyunsaturated Fats (PUFAs )and Omega-3 Fatty Acid
Polyunsaturated fat is a ‘good’ fat found in plant and animal foods, including salmon, tuna, trout, flaxseed, and certain vegetable oils. Linked to lower levels of LDL cholesterol, polyunsaturated fats include omega-3 and omega-6 fats—essential fatty acids that assist in brain function and cell growth.
Omega-3 fatty acids forms:
Omega-3 fatty acids come in three forms. EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). Both EPA and DHA are found mainly in oily cold water fish, and ALA is found mainly in plant sources such as flaxseed, vegetable oils, and nuts.
Okay, Great Information, But Now What?
Reading food packaging labels is the first step in making healthy dietary choices! When it comes to fats, most foods contain a combination of different types, though are classified according to the dominant fat. Opting for skim or low-fat dairy products, dedicating a few meals a week as vegetarian, and substituting olive or canola oil for margarine and butter can make impactful and long-lasting changes to your health. Fruits and vegetables are, of course, your friends. And maybe, the most obvious lifestyle change (though certainly not the easiest) is cutting out processed and fried foods, candies and rich desserts.
Similarly, choosing fish over red meat or pork once or twice a week will not only cut down on saturated fat intake but also provide you with critical polyunsaturated fats. Fish such as salmon, mackerel and tuna are loaded with beneficial omega-3, which aren’t naturally produced in the body. If meat is too difficult to pass up, trying choosing lean meat or skinless poultry instead of that juicy steak.
Most important is moderation. All fats, whether healthier or more harmful, contain nine calories per gram and a healthy and sustainable diet should reflect an anti-inflammatory diet. Similarly, you shouldn’t try to avoid all fat, as essential fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins are critical to health. Knowing the differences between types of fats and making good dietary decisions will lead to a healthy lifestyle and still allow you to enjoy your favorite foods in moderation!
If you want to add some good fats to your matcha try adding a high-quality MCT oil to your morning matcha.
- The Nutrition Source, “Dietary Fat and Disease”, Harvard T.H. Chan, https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/dietary-fat-and-disease/,
- Mayo Clinic Staff, “Dietary fats: Know which types to choose,” https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/fat/art-20045550, FEB 2 2016.
- Hu, F.B., et al., Fish and long-chain omega-3 fatty acid intake and risk of coronary heart disease and total mortality in diabetic women. Circulation, 2003. 107(14): p. 1852-7.
- Mozaffarian, D., et al., Trans fatty acids and cardiovascular disease. N Engl J Med, 2006. 354(15): p. 1601-13.
- Briggs, MA, et al, Saturated Fatty Acids and Cardiovascular Disease: Replacements for Saturated Fat to Reduce Cardiovascular Risk, Healthcare (Basel). 2017 Jun 21;5(2)
- Lecerf JM, Fatty acids and cardiovascular disease, Nutr Rev. 2009 May;67(5):273-83