The Remarkable Benefits of Healthy Fats
Fat lovers, rejoice! Now there are a lot fewer reasons to fear fat as a purely unhealthy food and to look at it more as a potentially healthy nutrient instead.
Recent research (such as this 2010 review by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition) has disproved some of the decades-old claims that fats are utterly unhealthy for us—especially the much-dreaded saturated fats from meat and dairy.
Misleading dietary guidelines claiming these fats may increase cholesterol levels— and thus one’s heart disease risk— are finally on the out-and-out. At last, there’s no reason to feel guilty noshing that avocado toast, juicy steak, and even a bit of bacon now and then.
On the other hand, mono-and polyunsaturated fats will continue to be lauded as the healthiest of fats to include in one’s regimens, while trans fats remain the most flat-out harmful fats of all. But then again, research into the world of fats has shaken up this narrative a bit, too.
When it comes to fats, what’s the truth about healthiness vs. unhealthiness? What’s the skinny, and then again what’s the beef about fats? Which ones are good, and which ones are bad?
Let’s take a look—and learn which fats can be viewed as healthy in the right light, and which ones are the true culprits to avoid.
DIFFERENT TYPES OF FATS – IT TAKES ALL KINDS
The argument for fats being healthy compared to their past unhealthy reputation isn’t exactly clear-cut.
Why? Because it depends on what type of fat is being looked at—and as it turns out, there’s many different categories and types of fats.
From saturated fats more common in animal products all the way to unsaturated fats found in plants and plant-based foods, all the different types of fats have different properties, nutrient values, and ultimate impacts on health.
Saturated fats are our first topic of discussion—especially because the scientific opinion about their healthiness has changed wildly in recent years. As such, there is still debate about the exact magnitude of their healthiness.
These fats are called “saturated” because they are more saturated or enriched in hydrogen atoms at a molecular level. As a result, these fats tend to take on a solid, tangible form at room temperature, but melt into an oily substance when exposed to heat.
Saturated fats have been thought of as unhealthy since they are found in high amounts in animal foods, and linked to raising LDL—a.k.a. “bad” cholesterol. However, saturated fats are found in lesser amounts in plant foods as well.
Common sources of saturated fats include:
- Butter (from grass-fed cows)
- Meats (beef, chicken, lamb, pork, duck)
Plant foods that contain some saturated fats:
ARE SATURATED FATS HEALTHY OR UNHEALTHY?
But are these fats really healthy or unhealthy? Nutritional guidelines (such as these) and studies (such as this one as recent as 2015 ) connected consumption of saturated fats with an increased risk of high cholesterol and thus, clogged arteries and heart disease in past years.
Since then, however—and in recent years—reviews like this one in 2014 have disputed that making this huge jump from saturated fats raising cholesterol all the way to increasing heart disease risk.
Chris Kresser, M.S. and L.A.c., dissected what saturated fats really do to the body instead of increasing heart disease risk in his 2013 article.
“It’s true that some studies show that saturated fat intake raises blood cholesterol levels. But these studies are almost always short-term, lasting only a few weeks.,” says Kresser.
“Longer-term studies have not shown an association between saturated fat intake and blood cholesterol levels… Moreover, studies on low-carbohydrate diets (which tend to be high in saturated fat) suggest that [saturated fats] not only don’t raise blood cholesterol, they have several beneficial impacts on cardiovascular disease risk markers.”
What more: a very recent 2017 Lancet global study found that the recommended replacers for saturated fats to reduce heart disease—including polyunsaturated fats, but especially “high quality” carbohydrates—actually increased the risk of death, where no fats were found to increase the risk of death whatsoever!
The verdict? For years, we’ve gotten saturated fats wrong. But today, science shows that saturated fats are just as important to a healthy diet as unsaturated fats and even protein, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, and minerals are.
In truth, saturated fats fall somewhere between trans fats and unsaturated fats on the spectrum of “healthiness.” Not all foods containing them should be considered “health foods” or even superfoods by any means—though it certainly does give credence to the idea that yes, some animal-based foods can indeed be superfoods.
And not only that: the new research on saturated fats certainly makes a case that fat is central to a healthy, varied diet as well!
WHAT DO SATURATED FATS DO FOR HEALTH?
If saturated fats could now be called staple nutrients in the diet and basically good for health, then what do they do?
According to Dr. Rhonda Patrick, PhD, they help maintain the GOOD cholesterol (HDL) vs. the bad (LDL) —and we need adequate saturated fat to make that happen.
“There are many other advantages of high HDL cholesterol levels, besides the cardioprotective effects,” Patrick says. “One study in men found that higher HDL cholesterol levels were associated with a longer lifespan…”
“…It is important to note that a diet with adequate amounts of saturated fat is important in maintaining HDL high cholesterol levels,” she concludes.
The next category of fats: unsaturated fats, which have been considered unequivocally healthy. Since these are principally found in certain fruits, vegetables, and nuts, they have long been touted as healthy—while good amounts can be found in fish and seafood, too.
The opposite of saturated fats, these types maintain a liquid, oil-like state at room temperature. Also unlike saturated fats, there are generally two sub-categories of unsaturated fats.
Monosaturated fats are the most common type of plant-based unsaturated fat found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
Common sources of monounsaturated fats:
- Nuts (almonds, pecans, cashews)
- Plant-based oils (especially olive)
- Seeds (safflower, sesame, pumpkin)
For years, research has continued to unequivocally support the health benefits of these fats. This includes this 2011 review on monosaturated fats, which shows that they are great dietary nutrients for helping reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, and even type 2 diabetes.
As an added bonus, they are also known to help keep cholesterol levels healthy—just like saturated fats—and to ease inflammation, most likely by improving immunity.
Even healthier than monounsaturated, polyunsaturated fats have garnered a very special, healthful reputation in the health world as being one of the best fats of all for wellness.
Most polyunsaturated fats are considered essential nutrients in the diet for optimal health in many animals, including humans, according to a 2014 physiological update review. These fats are found in both plant- and animal-based food sources.
Best sources for all sorts of polyunsaturated fats include:
- Nuts (walnuts, pine nuts, hickory nuts)
- Plant-based oils (especially avocado oil)
- Seafood (mackerel, sardines, tuna with oil)
- Seeds (chia seeds, sunflower, flax)
The biggest claim to fame for polyunsaturated fats: omega 3 fatty acids.
Extensive research over the past few decades has revealed that polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids, above all other fats, can indeed be called an essential nutrient—without it, our bodies cannot attain optimal health.
Best sources of omega-3 fatty acids:
- Cod liver
- Chickpeas/garbanzo beans
- Flax seeds
- Grass-fed beef (or other meat fed its natural diet)
- Wild salmon or trout
What benefits do these healthiest of healthy fats bring to the table?
According to a 2012 review, omega-3’s—especially those from certain seafoods—are imperative for the smooth, healthy function of certain bodily systems, and reduce the chances of a number of diseases from occurring.
Omega-3 fatty acids are responsible for:
- Improving cognitive functions
- Moderating chronic inflammation in the body
- Proper tissue development in babies and fetuses
- Reducing the chances of mental illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease
While science and nutrition have been wrong about certain fats in the past, that’s not to say that they’ve been wrong about the dangers of all fats.
If there’s a type of fat out there that’s flat-out bad for health, it’s trans fats, specifically industrially created ones. These types of fats don’t occur naturally in foods—whether in raw animal or plant form—but are created as the result of processing, cooking, frying, or other preparation methods.
Trans fats are created through the effort to transform unsaturated fats, such as vegetable oils, into shelf-stable saturated oils to prevent them from going rancid. This process is called hydrogenation—but unfortunately, this process transforms perfectly healthy oils into incredibly unhealthy ones.
Sources of industrial trans fats include:
- Hydrogenated oils
- Commercially-sold, retail baked goods and grain products like cakes, cookies, donuts, pies, cupcakes, crackers, and biscuits
- Deep-fried foods
- Microwave popcorn
- Pizza (crusts—especially frozen)
- Vegetable shortening
Many studies (including this one in 2015) make the connections and spread the warnings about the dangers of trans fats.
The ways they may harm health include:
- Raising LDL or bad cholesterol
- Increasing risk of heart disease and cardiovascular health problems
- Increasing risk of type 2 diabetes
- Increasing risk of obesity
- Increasing risk of stroke
Surprisingly, there is just one kind of trans fat that is considered healthy: ruminant trans fatty acid.
Their main difference from industrial trans fats is that they are naturally produced by animals like goats, cows, and sheep in their digestive systems, and don’t come from processed plant oils at all. These fats are in fact found in the dairy products from these animals, especially milk.
What more, studies—though they are preliminary, like this one in 2011—show that these are actually good for health, particularly in helping to reduce the chances of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke, the exact opposite of what typical trans fats do.
MEDIUM-CHAIN FATTY ACIDS (MCT’s)
Last but not least, there is one last sub-category of very healthy fats that many may not know about—or that is commonly overlooked.
These fats are called medium-chain triglycerides (MCT’s), or medium-chain fatty acids. A unique subset of saturated fat, these can be found in plant products like palm kernels, but most notable in the oil of coconuts.
And the most amazing thing about them? They could help people lose weight!
Research has rung in positive results on weight loss, improved metabolism, and curbed appetite in subjects who consumed supplements of the fat, including those who participated in this 2012 study.
Dr. Rhonda Patrick is a strong proponent of the fat for weight loss, and specifically using it in its most natural form—from coconut oil. “It seems a bit counter-intuitive that fat could actually aid in weight loss. But it’s true,” says Patrick.
“…Because the medium chain fatty acids found in coconut oil are easily and rapidly transported into the mitochondria, unlike long chain fatty acids, they are immediately used for energy, resulting in a burst of energy and thermogenesis, which, subsequently, increases metabolism.”
And while studies on MCT’s are still preliminary, they can be safely explored as part of a varied nutrient-dense diet that includes all other healthy fats beneficial for wellness as well: saturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, omega-3’s, and more.
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