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Remember when fat used to get a bad rap? It really wasn’t that long ago. We seemed convinced that eliminating all fats from our diets was the key to healthy living. Funny how times have changed!
Of course, these days it’s fairly common knowledge that not all fat is bad. We know that our bodies require good fats in order to function properly and stay healthy. Bad fats lead to clogged arteries, heart disease, and obesity. Meanwhile, good fats protect our organs, keep our brain and heart healthy, fight fatigue, and help our bodies to absorb vitamins.
So even when we’re dieting, we don’t want to remove fats from our diet altogether. Instead, we want to replace the bad with the good, wherever we can. The question becomes: which types of foods have these healthy fats vs. unhealthy fats? Let’s take a look at each and then we’ll list some easy ways to make the swap.
In this article
- Bad fats – avoid
- Not great fats – limit intake
- Heart-healthy fats – choose these (but still don’t overdo it)
- CHART: Making the swap from unhealthy to healthy fats
Bad fats – avoid
If you could only remember one type of fat to avoid, make it trans fat. It is bad-bad-bad. And it used to be everywhere but thankfully several countries, including the US, have banned trans fats. That said, this stuff has a loooong shelf life, so you’ll want to check your cabinets to make sure you don’t have any in there.
Trans fat is a byproduct of hydrogenation, which is a process that transforms oils into solid fats. Food manufacturers did this in order to prevent the oils from going rancid which, in turn, gave them a longer and more stable shelf life. Unfortunately, it also messes with your cholesterol and put you at greater risk for heart disease.
Before the ban, you’d most often find trans fats in margarine and vegetable shortening. They were also a key ingredient in most packaged goods and fast foods. Sometimes you’d see it clearly listed on the ingredients label as ‘trans fat’, while other times you’d see it as ‘partially hydrogenated oil’. Either way, if you come across it — avoid.
Not great fats – limit intake
Saturated fats used to be on the most hated list until trans fats took center stage. And while they’re not as evil a villain as they used to be, saturated fats are still not your buddy. Like trans fats, saturated fats can raise levels of bad (LDL) cholesterol and significantly increase the risk of heart disease.
You’ll find saturated fats in foods such as:
- meat and dairy products
- poultry skins
- tropical plant-based oils (e.g., coconut* and palm oil**)
* There is ongoing debate around whether the saturated fat of coconut oil is good or bad. I don’t go into the debate here and personally, I use coconut oil often.
** I avoid palm oil for ethical reasons (rainforest decimation and the brutal killing of orangutans) unless it is certified humane or can otherwise show it has been responsibly harvested.
Heart-healthy fats – choose these (but still don’t overdo it)
Unsaturated (good) fats help to fight inflammation in our bodies. They also help to lower levels of bad cholesterol, while increasing levels of good cholesterol. In turn, this helps to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Good fats can be bucketed into two main categories: monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats.
Good sources of monounsaturated fats include:
- nuts & seeds
- cold-pressed, unrefined oils such as olive, sesame, avocado, and high oleic safflower and sunflower oils
In addition to getting these healthier fats from foods, our bodies can also manufacture monounsaturated fats from the saturated fats that we eat.
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Polyunsaturated fats are needed to build cell membranes, clot our blood, move muscles, and reduce inflammation. Unlike monosaturated fats, our bodies cannot synthesize polyunsaturated fats, which means we need to actively include them in our diet.
The two main types of polyunsaturated fats are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. It’s fairly easy to get enough omega-6 in your diet without thinking too much about it because it’s found in foods that most of us eat regularly.
Good sources of omega- 6s include:
- nuts & seeds
- whole grains
- green leafy vegetables
- unrefined seed oils such as hemp, sesame, sunflower, chia, and flaxseed oils
By contrast, getting enough omega-3 may require some planning, unless you regularly eat fish – specifically fatty fish such as:
- anchovies & sardines
- mussels and oysters
The bad news is that wild caught fish (particularly larger species) are often contaminated to varying degrees with environmental toxins, including mercury. And unfortunately, industrially farmed fish are not always safer. This is because farmed fish are often contaminated with growth hormones and antibiotics, as well as disease from living in extremely tight quarters that limit their natural movement and promote illness.
Good sources of vegetarian omega-3 fatty acids include:
- walnuts and walnut oil
- ground flaxseeds and flaxseed oil
- chia, sesame, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds
- unrefined safflower and avocado oils
- edamame (organic, non-GMO)
- algae (usually as a supplement)
Omega-3 is also found in smaller amounts in beans, nuts, whole grains, and vegetables.
A note on flaxseed oil
Flaxseeds have a nice nutty flavor and can be added to salads, smoothies, breakfast cereals, or drizzled over whole grains. Aim to consume one teaspoon of (unheated) flaxseed oil or one tablespoon of (unheated) ground flaxseed each day. (Flaxseeds need to be ground in order for your body to absorb all their nutrients.) Flaxseeds and flaxseed oil should be kept cool in the fridge or freezer to prevent damage from heat and oxygen.
CHART: Making the swap from unhealthy to healthy fats
There’s a lot to remember, I know. So here’s a simple chart of which fats to avoid, as well as some healthier alternatives to replace them with.
|BAD FAT – ELIMINATE||REPLACE WITH|
|Margarine and vegetable shortening||In place of margarine, opt for olive oil in sandwiches and other savory foods, as well as high oleic safflower and sunflower oils for baked goods. Applesauce, pureed prunes, or mashed banana can also take the place of shortening in baked goods since they will make the baked goods light and flaky. (Just be sure to reduce the amount of sweetener in the recipe, when using fruit to replace shortening.)|
|Fried foods from a fast food chain or packaged from the store, including fried chicken (both parts and nuggets), fried fish, french fries, onion rings, hash browns, and hush puppies||Make these foods yourself and, instead of frying them, try baking or lightly sautéing in unrefined olive oil, avocado oil, sesame oil, grapeseed oil, safflower oil, or virgin coconut oil.|
|Most packaged & commercially prepared dough-foods including breads, cookies, cakes, pastries, donuts, and muffins||Healthier options are typically baked with unrefined virgin coconut oil, high oleic safflower oil, or sunflower oil.|
|Most packaged snack foods such as chips, crackers, packaged and microwave popcorn||Healthier packaged options are typically baked with unrefined virgin coconut oil, high oleic safflower oil, or sunflower oil. You can also make them yourself.|
|Other foods that list hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil on the label||Any of the oils listed above.|
|NOT GREAT FAT – LIMIT INTAKE||REPLACE WITH|
|Red meat and poultry with skin||Plant-based proteins such as beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds. High-fiber carbohydrates such as whole grains (not refined grains).|
|Dairy products such as milk, cheese, butter, yogurt, ice cream||Give nut milks and seed butters a try, if you haven’t already. They’re everywhere these days, especially in healthier food stores. They are also easy to make at home. Popular versions of these alternative milks and butters are made from almonds, cashews, hemp seed milk, walnuts, brazil nuts, and pumpkin seeds.|
|Palm oil||Unrefined (virgin) coconut oil and unrefined vegetable and seed oils (e.g., avocado, olive, flax seed, walnut, sunflower, and safflower oils).|