Great question, because it is difficult to know the difference — especially when it seems like all fats get a bad rap.
The truth is, our bodies need some fats in our diet to function. Fats are necessary to absorb vitamins, as an energy source, and for healthy skin and hair. Of course, too much of the wrong kinds, or even the right kinds of fats, is a bad thing, and a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. But new research is showing that the right kinds of fats can lower your risk of chronic disease.
Good fats are called monounsaturated fatty acids. These fats are found in plant foods. You’ll find monounsaturated fatty acids in nuts, olive oil, avocados, and canola oil. Monounsaturated fats can lower your cholesterol levels (remember, cholesterol is not the same as fat) which can lower your risk of heart disease.
Another type of good fat is polyunsaturated fatty acids. Polyunsaturated fatty acids can also improve cholesterol levels. You have probably heard of omega-3 fatty acids, which are polyunsaturated fatty acids. Polyunsaturated fatty acids are found in oily fish like salmon, trout, herring, and mackerel. These fatty acids are so important that the American Heart Association recommends eating at least two servings of these fish a week to lower your risk of heart disease. Polyunsaturated fatty acids are also found in corn and soybean oils.
Everyone knows to limit saturated fats, like what is found in red meat and butter. For years, studies have found links between saturated fats and an increased risk of heart disease. It’s okay to have saturated fats occasionally, but limit servings to two a week.
And what about trans fats? Trans fats are not healthy — they increase bad cholesterol and may decrease good cholesterol, both of which can increase your risk of coronary artery disease. There are small amounts of trans fats in some foods, but most trans fats are added to foods- it is a cheap way to increase the food’s shelf life and stability. Common sources of trans fats are fried foods, cookies, margarines, frosting, coffee creamers, and frozen pizza. Basically, look for foods that are prepared with “partially hydrogenated oil “ on the label, and avoid these foods.
So, here’s the bottom line on fats: When cooking with recipes that call for fats, use canola, olive, soybean, corn, or sunflower oil. Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables- aim for at least five a day. Eat lots of whole grains. Get your meats from lean protein and fatty fish, like salmon, and make your dairy sources low fat or fat free. And avoid trans fats!
Beth Heath is the county nurse manager for the Madison County Health Department.