A little fat isn’t necessarily a bad thing — the problem comes in choosing the right kind. With terms such as “saturated” and “partially hydrogenated” crowding up labels, it can be confusing for consumers to make healthy fat choices.
Whitney Tew, M.D. of family medicine at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Birmingham, said fats are essential for the body to absorb necessary fat-soluble vitamins and function normally.
“Considering the risks of unhealthy, and the possible benefits of the healthy fats, it’s better to choose unsaturated fats on multiple levels,” Tew said.
Unsaturated fats are typically considered healthier than saturated fats. The difference between them is in the number and shape of bonds between the fatty acids that make up the molecule.
When trying to make healthy fat choices, Tew said to look at the fat content on the nutrition label, which compares the total fat grams to the grams of saturated and trans fats. Saturated fats are normally solid at room temperature and can be found in high-fat cheese, high-fat cuts of meat, whole milk and ice cream.
“The higher the ratio of total fat to these types of fats, the more healthy (unsaturated) fats the product has,” she said.
Tew said a diet high in unhealthy fats greatly increases the risk of cardiovascular disease by increasing LDL — low density lipoprotein, or bad cholesterol — and decreasing HDL — high density lipoprotein, or good cholesterol.
She added that trans fats have been found to increase inflammation in the body, which can cause direct damage to blood vessels, even without the cholesterol effects. Saturated fat intake actually has a much stronger effect on cholesterol levels than dietary cholesterol intake itself.
“Animal foods are notorious for being high in saturated fats, such as red meats, milk and full-fat cheeses,” Tew said. “Trans fat can occur in animal foods as well, but our largest intake is from foods made with partially hydrogenated oils. Often high contents are found in baked goods, highly processed foods, margarines, and one sneaky source is peanut butter not labeled as ‘natural.’ Many restaurants still use oils containing trans fats for frying foods.”
Beth Kitchin, a registered dietitian and assistant professor in the department of nutrition and sciences at the University of Alabama Birmingham, agrees with Tew that trans fats are the fats to avoid. When cooking with oils, Kitchin suggested substituting animal fats with vegetable oils.
“Right now, almost any liquid oil at room temperature is pretty good,” Kitchin said.
She recommends replacing unhealthy fats with olive oil because it’s unsaturated and can also help lower cholesterol LDL.
“In situations where you can use olive oil and you like it, then I suggest it,” she said.
For baking or cooking on higher heat settings “like cake or frying things,” Kitchin recommends canola oil.
“It has a higher content of omega-3 fatty acids in comparisons to other oils,” Kitchin explained. “It’s also inexpensive.”
Tew said healthy fats have the opposite effect as unhealthy fats. They improve a person’s cholesterol profile by increasing HDL while decreasing inflammation and the risk for cardiovascular disease.
They have also been touted as beneficial in other areas such as improving dry skin and aiding in appetite control for weight loss, she said. Tew suggested fatty fish, nuts and seeds, avocados and vegetable oils as healthy fat sources.