Your Health

Certain fats much healthier than many people think

Avocado and salmon salad.
Photo of Chantel Moodoo. CHANTEL MOODOO
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Friday, January 27, 2017

Are you unclear about the effects dietary fats can have on your health?

If so, welcome to the club.

Plenty of Canadians feel confused about dietary fats, and there are many reasons why they do.

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons is that there are so many different types of fat, and they all affect the body differently. Another reason is that much of the information about dietary fats often appears contradictory, with various fad diets promising better health if you eat more of this fat or less of that one.

But while keeping track of the various dietary fats and their properties may seem a bit daunting, it is important to remember that not all fats are unhealthy.
The following Q&A is designed to clear up some of the misinformation about dietary fats and the effects they can have on your health.

Why are dietary fats important?

Dietary fats are an essential part of a healthy diet and are needed for many bodily functions. Not only do they supply energy to the body, they also act as an insulator and improve heart health. Fats are also necessary for the absorption of some fat-soluble nutrients and the attainment of essential fatty acids that can only be acquired from food sources. 

How much of daily caloric intake should be derived from dietary fats?

Most experts suggest people should aim to get about 20 to 35 per cent of their total calories from dietary fats. For example, if you eat 2,200 calories a day then the range of calories coming from fat would be 440 to 770 calories, or 49 to 86 grams of fat.

How many different types of dietary fat are there?

While there are many ways to classify fats, they basically fall into three groups: unsaturated fats, saturated fats and trans-fats.

Which fats are considered healthiest?

Generally speaking, unsaturated fats are considered to be the healthiest. They include monounsaturated fatty acids (avocadoes, olive and other oils, peanuts, nuts and nut butters) and polyunsaturated fatty acids (oils, fatty fish, nuts and seeds).

These fats possess many health benefits. For example, polyunsaturated fats contain Omega 3, which boost heart health in adults, and support brain and eye development in infants. Good sources of Omega-3 include salmon, mackerel and trout. Alternative options include ground flaxseeds and walnuts.

What about saturated fats?

Saturated fats are found in many foods, including meat, dairy products and eggs. All of these foods, when eaten in appropriate portion sizes, are part of a healthy diet. The problem is most Canadians don’t get their saturated fat from these healthy foods. Instead, they get most of their saturated fat calories from highly processed foods, such as sausages, bologna, salami, hot dogs, bacon, pizza, donuts, cakes, ice cream, and other prepared or snack foods.

Although emerging evidence suggests that saturated fat is not as harmful as once thought, these fats in excess do raise bad cholesterol levels within the body and increase your risk of developing heart disease. As a result, most experts recommend that you try to get most of your daily fat calories from unsaturated fats.  

What is the scoop on coconut oil and butter?

Coconut oil and butter are both saturated fats that should be consumed less frequently than mono and polyunsaturated fats. Nonetheless, coconut oil and butter in small amounts every once in a while as part of a balanced diet emphasizing all food groups is all right. If you are an avid butter consumer, then substituting butter with oils in cooking or peanut butter or avocado slices on toast may be a good idea.

What about trans fat?

Trans fats are often found in processed foods, hard margarines and anything labelled partially hydrogenated. They tend to raise bad cholesterol levels and lower your good cholesterol levels, both of which can increase your risk of developing heart disease and stroke. Food with trans fat should be avoided.

What’s the best way to keep a handle on fat intake?

The best advice is to focus not so much on fat, but on your total diet. Avoid highly processed foods and choose a balanced diet of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, protein from a variety of sources. And don’t forget to include healthy fats

Chantel Moodoo is a nutrition practicum student with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. This column was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Friday, January 27, 2017.

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