Healthy Fats vs. Unhealthy Fats: What’s the difference?

Healthy fats were demonized as a food group for decades, and up until a few years ago, fats had a reputation for “making” people gain weight. Weight gain was the main concern for the general public, but health boards were more worried about heart disease and cholesterol.

However, those concerns were relieved when it was found that healthy fat consumption had little connection to heart disease. Rather, the type of fat was more important. Many dietitians have coined the term “healthy fat” for the type of fat that is helpful and healthful for the body. In fact, healthy fats, such as omega-6 fats, could possibly lower cholesterol.

Fat vs. Carbohydrate vs. Protein

Fats

Healthy Fats give our bodies energy, and vitamins A, D, E, and K rely on fat to be absorbed. One gram of fat is equal to 9 calories, so they are packed full of energy and calories in small servings. However, excess carbohydrates that aren’t immediately used by the body are also stored as fat.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for our bodies. In a typical diet, carbohydrates are the most consumed of the three groups. Examples of carbohydrates include whole-wheat bread, fruit, and vegetables. Carbohydrates contain only 4 calories per gram, which is less than half the amount of calories in a gram of fat. Carbohydrates provide essential nutrients and vitamins such as vitamin C and fiber, so our body needs carbohydrates to survive.

Proteins

Proteins build and repair tissues, which is why many athletes consume high amounts of protein. This helps build muscle tissue. Examples of proteins include tofu, eggs, chicken, beef, beans, and nuts. Protein also comes in a powder form that can be added to smoothies or shakes for an additional protein boost. Proteins, just like carbohydrates, only contain 4 calories per gram.

What are Healthy Fats?

Healthy fat is unsaturated fat. Unsaturated fats are defined by the bend in their molecular shape as well as their natural liquid state at room temperature. An example of unsaturated fat is olive oil or avocado oil.

On the other hand, saturated fats are solid at room temperature. Saturated fat molecules are completely straight, which allows them to lay flat on top of each other. This allows for a solid structure to form. Saturated fats, while not completely unhealthy, should be consumed in small amounts.

Examples of the Healthiest Fats

Healthiest Fats - Sunflower Oil

High Oleic Sunflower Oil

High oleic sunflower oil is an example of monounsaturated fat. This oil contains a higher percentage of oleic acid, more commonly known as monounsaturated fat, compared to regular sunflower oil. High oleic sunflower oil is also more thermally stable and oxidatively stable than regular sunflower oil, which means that more nutrients are retained in the oil, both during cooking and in storage. High oleic sunflower oil has been studied for its positive effects on blood lipids and heart disease prevention.

Healthiest Fats - CAACMCT and Coconut Oil

Caprylic Acid C8 MCT (CACMCT) Oil and Coconut Oil

CACMCT oil is an oil that consists of medium-chain triglycerides, and medium-chain triglycerides are known to be ketogenic even if carb consumption is not restricted. This effect is also shown in caprylic acid (C8), which makes up roughly 6-8% of coconut oil. Coconut oil was found to have a higher ketogenic effect than sunflower oil, which may be useful for those on a ketogenic diet prescribed by their doctor.

Coconut oil, despite its popularity, should be taken with caution. Coconut oil consumption increases all cholesterol, both the good and the bad, which can negatively impact our overall health if consumed in large amounts. Coconut oil is considered a saturated fat, and researchers suggest that coconut oil only be consumed within the current recommendations of saturated fat intake, which is set at 10% of total caloric intake.

Healthiest Fats - Cod Liver Oil

Cod Liver Oil

Cod liver oil originally started off being used to prevent rickets in children but has also been praised for its health benefits. Cod liver oil has omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which overall benefit health. Omega-3 fatty acids have been found to lower mortality and death due to cardiac disease. Also, cod liver oil is high in vitamins A and D, which are essential fat-soluble vitamins that our body needs to function.

Krill Oil

Krill oil is a lesser-known type of healthy fat oil that contains EPA, DHA, and omega-3 fatty acids. An important difference between krill oil and fish oil is the presence of astaxanthin in krill oil. Astaxanthin is an antioxidant in krill oil that is often missing in fish oil. Astaxanthin has been shown to increase HDL cholesterol, which is the “good” cholesterol. Additionally, it has been found that krill oil could be a more bioavailable source of omega-3 fatty acids compared to fish oil and that krill oil plays a part in lowering triglyceride levels.

Healthiest Fats - Salmon Roe

Salmon Roe

Salmon roe is another way of saying salmon eggs. Salmon roe can be purchased at grocery stores and ordered at sushi restaurants. These eggs are full of polyunsaturated fatty acids, and 90% of their fatty acids are phosphatidylcholine. Phosphatidylcholine has been found to be effective in preventing hepatic fibrosis and treating chronic liver diseases.

Healthiest Fats - Algae

Algae

EPA and DHA in the aquatic realm originate from algae. There are certain types of microalgae that produce high levels of EPA or DHA. Algae that is high in DHA show similar beneficial health results to fish oil, such as lowering triglyceride levels and oxidative stress levels. DHA microalgae oil can be purchased online, but you should consult your doctor prior to taking any kind of supplement.

Perilla Seed Oil

Perilla seed oil comes from a plant that produces leaves that are commonly eaten raw in many Asian cultures. This seed oil contains a very high proportion of omega-3 fatty acids compared to other plant oils, and also contains omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids. Perilla seed oil also contains many different polyphenolic compounds, which can help with bodily functions and improve symptoms of various diseases or chronic conditions.

Sacha Inchi Oil

Sacha Inchi oil is an oil that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids. It is considered one of the best plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are healthful and can help prevent heart attacks, lower blood pressure, and reverse atherosclerosis. Since sacha inchi oil is derived from the sacha inchi peanut, those with peanut allergies should not consume this oil.

Healthiest Fats - Blackseed Oil

Blackseed Oil

Blackseed oil is also known as black cumin oil. This oil has been studied for its possible treatment for inflammatory and auto-immune conditions, but more studies are needed to fully understand its health benefits and effects. Blackseed itself is high in iron, copper, zinc, phosphorus, calcium, thiamin, niacin, and folic acid, but also contains high levels of omega-6 fatty acids.

Healthiest Fats - Ghee

Grass-fed Butter vs. Ghee

Grass-fed butter is made from the milk of cows that are fed fresh grass. This type of butter is considered to be more eco-friendly. Despite its appearance as a “healthier” alternative, grass-fed butter is still butter, which means it is comprised of mainly saturated fats.

However, it is the “healthier” alternative of regular, conventional butter because grass-fed dairy has a higher concentration of polyunsaturated fats and higher amounts of protein. Grass-fed butter is also high in butyric acid, which is an anti-inflammatory compound. This can help with various conditions such as Chron’s disease. When it comes to fats in general, it is often healthier to choose an oil, such as olive or avocado, over a butter.

Ghee is also known as clarified butter, and it has been commonly used in Middle Eastern countries. Ghee is made up of saturated fats and monounsaturated fatty acids. There have been numerous studies that examined decreased LDL and increased HDL cholesterol levels after consuming ghee. However, a study conducted in India found that cardiovascular morbidity and mortality increased after ghee consumption. Since ghee is still high in saturated fats, it is important to limit consumption.

Importance of Smoking Point in Oils

The main issue with cooking with healthy oils is thermal degradation. When you cook with an oil like olive oil, which has a relatively low smoke point, the triglycerides in the oil hydrolyze into what is called a free fatty acid. Free fatty acids provide fuel to the fat cells in the body, and when there are too many free fatty acids, negative health effects can occur.

To avoid this problem, it is best to cook with oils that have a low smoke point, such as flax oil, olive oil, and coconut oil, for a short amount of time at a lower temperature. Oils such as sunflower, peanut, extra virgin olive oil, and avocado oil, have higher smoke points and are best for higher temperatures and prolonged use.

Healthiest Fats - Transfat

Trans fat

The one type of fat to completely avoid is trans fat. Trans fat is not a naturally occurring fat; it is made through partial hydrogenation of oil. Trans fat consumption is directly linked to numerous different health issues such as heart disease, breast cancer, shortening the period of pregnancy, increased risk of preeclampsia, nervous system disorders and vision issues in infants, colon cancer, diabetes, obesity, and allergies. Due to its direct link to these health issues, trans fat should be completely avoided.

Trans fat is found in small amounts in many processed and fried foods as well as in margarine and shortening. As long as trans fat amounts to less than 0.5 grams in a serving, the nutrition label on food can say that there are 0 grams of trans fat in their product. This means that there could be small amounts of trans fats in foods that could add up if many of these processed, unhealthy foods are consumed often.

Specific Foods that Have Healthy Fats

Healthiest Fats - Avocados

Avocados

Avocados are high in fiber and monounsaturated fatty acids. Avocados also help with heart health and weight management.

Healthiest Fats - Fatty Fish

Fatty Fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna)

Fatty fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which our body does not make on its own. Having fatty fish 1-3 times a week is beneficial and essential to our health.

Healthiest Fats - Chia Seeds

Chia Seeds

Chia seeds are high in insoluble fiber and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Seeds are known to be high in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, but chia seeds are known to be the best plant-based source of omega-3 fatty acids. These seeds can be easily incorporated into diets when blended into a smoothie.

Healthiest Fats - Macadamia

Macadamia Nuts

Nuts are naturally high in mono- and polyunsaturated fats. Healthy fats makeup 76% of the macadamia nut and are high in protein, fiber, and other essential nutrients.

Healthiest Fats - Ground Flaxseed

Ground Flaxseed

Flaxseed is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and fiber. Flaxseed milk is becoming increasingly popular as a plant-based dairy product because it has no cholesterol or nut products. Flaxseed has been shown to lower trans fats levels in the body and is helpful in preventing heart disease.

Health Benefits of Healthy Fats

Polyunsaturated fatty acids are helpful for lowering the risk of heart disease, and this has been shown in numerous studies. One called the PREDIMED trial found that the Mediterranean diet, which is a diet centered around healthy fat consumption, combined with either extra-virgin olive oil or nut consumption, was effective in reducing heart attack, stroke, and death by 30%. The PREDIMED trial also found that the Mediterranean diet groups also resulted in significant reductions in blood pressure, total cholesterol, and diabetes incidence.

Final recommendations

It is important to include fats, especially healthy ones, into our diets. The minimum intake is recommended at 20% of calories, and it’s recommended that saturated fat be, at most, 10% of that caloric intake. Healthy fats can have a positive impact on our health as long as a balanced diet is maintained.

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