Healthy Fats 101
Healthy fats are an incredibly important part of a balanced diet. Today we are debunking diet myths and talking all about the different types of fats, their benefits, and the best types to incorporate into your diet.
Fat has traditionally gotten a bad rap in the diet world. You’ve likely seen tons of reduced fat or low fat products on the market, and have maybe tried low fat dieting. Part of this misconception stems from the fact that fat contains 9 calories per gram while carbohydrates and protein contain 4 calories per gram, making it a more calorically dense food.
However, healthy fats are vital to our health and have many roles in the body, there is no reason to fear them! Instead of reducing fat or, worse, attempting to cut it out altogether, we should be focusing on incorporating healthy fats into our diets to achieve optimal health.
Healthy Fats Play a Number of Important Roles in the Body
Fatty acids are building blocks for every cell membrane in the body! You can think of them as the “bricks” that our cell walls are made of. The proper balance of fats determines the structural integrity of the cell, so you want to make sure that you are eating every type.
Here are a few other roles of fats in the body:
- Whereas carbohydrates provide a quick spike of energy, fats provide a slow-burning, continuous source of energy to keep you going all day
- They are required for absorbing important fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K
- Fat serves as a protective lining for your organs
- They play a huge role in managing inflammation
Types of Fats
You’ve probably heard that avocados are a “healthy fat” while saturated fats like butter and animal fats should be stayed away from. This is not true! We need saturated fats, unsaturated fats, and essential fatty acids for optimal health. We just have to make sure we are getting them from the appropriate sources.
Here’s the low-down on the different types of fats:
Saturated fats are often vilified, but they also play important roles in the body and need to be properly balanced with other types of fat. Saturated fats are great for cooking because they tend to be highly stable, don’t go rancid easily, and can stand up to higher heat cooking
Good sources of saturated fats include:
Unsaturated fats are broken into two categories: monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats are relatively stable and don’t go rancid easily, and can often stand up to higher heat cooking (especially avocado oil!).
Good Sources of Monounsaturated Fats Include:
Polyunsaturated fats are comprised of the essential Omega 6 and Omega 3 fatty acids. These are referred to as essential fatty acids, because unlike the other fatty acids, the body cannot make these fats itself. They must be consumed directly.
Omega 6 fatty acids are the most prolific fats in the typical American diet because they are found in cooking oils such as canola, vegetable, safflower, corn, and soybean oils. Good sources of Omega 6 fatty acids include nuts, sunflower oil, and sesame oil.
Omega 3 fatty acids are an incredibly important fatty acid that has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties and reduce the risk of heart disease. It is typically under-consumed in the American diet. They are primarily found in fish oil, salmon, nuts, and flax
Essential Fatty Acids and Inflammation
In order to curb inflammation, your Omega 3 to Omega 6 intake ratio should be around 1:1. However, most foods in America are cooked in processed oils that are high in Omega 6, such as canola, soy, and vegetable oil, because these oils are cheap and relatively stable. Also, conventional cows are fed corn and grain instead of grass, increasing their omega 6 fatty acid content. Because of this, our diets are naturally very high in Omega 6 from nutrient-poor sources1.
You don't need to fear Omega 6, by sticking to whole foods sources like nuts and varying your fat sources. You should also aim to include extra sources of Omega 3 in your diet such as salmon (grab my favorite salmon here), fish oil, or flax oil, and avoid highly processed oils when possible, choosing instead to cook with avocado oil, olive oil, coconut oil, ghee, butter, and animal fat.
The Best Fats for Cooking
Wondering what the best healthy fats for every day cooking are now that you know which ones to steer clear of? Here's a simple guide!
Best Fats for High Heat Cooking
Saturated fats are typically your best bet for high heat cooking, because they are relatively stable and stand up well to high heat. Ghee, coconut oil, tallow, lard, and duck fat are all great cooking options. The best unsaturated fat for high heat cooking is avocado oil, which can withstand temperatures of up to 520 F before reaching it's smoke point.
Best Fats for Medium to Low Heat Cooking
While the fats listed above can also be great for medium-heat cooking, you can get a little bit more fat variety in your diet by using unsaturated fats for lower heat cooking. Olive oil, macadamia nut oil, and pecan oil are all great choices for use in salad dressings, or for sauteing vegetables or proteins.
Note: Oils high in Omega 3 such as fish oil and flax oil should not be used for cooking as they are very fragile and heating can reduce their quality and turn them rancid and unusable.
There's no one type of healthy fat, rather the key is to make sure you have a mixture of healthy fatty acids in your diet from good, reputable sources. If you lean toward consuming only one type of fat the majority of the time, make a point to mix it up!