Your Step-by-Step Guide to Understanding Healthy vs. Unhealthy Fats 

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Of all food groups, ‘fats’ may be the most misunderstood. For years, doctors, scientists, and other health care professionals hammered home the same message about dietary fat — eating too much of it makes you obese and unhealthy.  

Everything, from olive oil to margarine, was lumped into the same category — a fat was a fat was a fat. And if you needed to lose weight, you were often told to avoid fats of all kinds. Remember the days of fat-free everything? 

It’s only been in the past decade or so that opinions about fat have changed. Fortunately, most people now realize how crucial healthy fats are to overall health. But there is still a lot of confusion surrounding fat. What is the difference between the types of fat? Which fats are the healthiest? What should I eat if I have high cholesterol?  

Here’s what you need to know to fuel your body with the cleanest, healthiest fats and oils.

Breaking Down Different Types of Fat 

There are four main types of fat: monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated, and trans-fat. Keep in mind that some foods have more than one type of fat. 

Monounsaturated Fats: Olive, peanut, sunflower, safflower, avocado, and canola oils; seed oils such as sesame and pumpkin; nuts such as hazelnuts, pecans, and almonds; whole avocados  

Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs), generally liquid at room temperature but slightly hardened when chilled, are considered healthy fats. Some studies suggest that consuming MUFA-rich foods help support healthy cholesterol, balance insulin, and control blood glucose. 

Olive oil is a particularly healthy standout. According to a new study presented at the NUTRITION 2023 Annual Meeting of the American Society for Nutrition, olive oil may help cut the risk of dying from dementia. 

People who consumed more than half a tablespoon of olive oil per day had a 28% lower risk of dying from dementia, compared to those who never or rarely consumed olive oil, said the research team. Scientists also discovered that replacing just one teaspoon of margarine and/or mayonnaise with the same amount of olive oil per day was associated with an 8–14% lower risk of dying from dementia. 

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Polyunsaturated Fats: Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines; some nuts and seeds such as walnuts, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, and chia seeds; vegetable oils such as soybean, corn, and sunflower oil; grapeseed oil (also has monounsaturated and saturated fat); edamame, seaweed, algae, some beans, and some leafy green veggies 

Polyunsaturated fats are a type of dietary fat that supply essential fatty acids, such as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The body cannot produce these, so you must get them through diet.  

The health benefits of PUFAs, particularly those higher in omega-3 fatty acids such as fish and hemp seeds, are far-reaching. Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids help improve a range of health issues, including heart disease, high triglycerides, high cholesterol, cognitive function, anxiety and depression, immune function, digestive health, and much more. 

Balancing the ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s is critical for preventing chronic illness. The average American diet tends to be heavy in omega-6 fats (common in commercial vegetable oils) and low in omega-3s — this dangerous imbalance can lead to chronic inflammation, free radical and oxidative damage, and other health problems.  

In addition to tweaking your diet, consider taking an omega-3 fatty acid supplement daily. This is especially important if you don’t eat fish and other foods high in omega-3s. 

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Saturated Fats: Butter and clarified butter (ghee); cream and other full-fat dairy foods; coconut and other tropical oils; beef, pork, lamb, and other meats  

You might be surprised to learn that a moderate intake of saturated fats can be good for you — clean, whole (and preferably organic) sources of saturated fats support cellular integrity, cardiovascular health, immunity, vital energy, and other critical areas of health.  

Unlike MUFAs and PUFAs, saturated fats are more solid at room temperature. They are good cooking oils, particularly clarified butter, ghee, and coconut oil. These fats stay relatively stable at higher temperatures, which means they don’t easily become rancid during cooking. This is very important, because healthy fats can turn toxic at high temperatures (known as the oil’s smoking point). When overheated, the molecular structures of the oils change, generating free radical damage within cells and tissues. 

Trans Fats: Baked goods such as cookies, cakes, pies, and Danish; shortening; frozen pizza; refrigerated biscuits and rolls; fried food such as fried chicken, French fries, and donuts; nondairy coffee creamers, and margarine 

These are the worst fats, and you should avoid them completely. Designed to extend the shelf life of processed foods, trans fats and their relatives “interesterified” fats are made from a chemical process used in food manufacturing. Trans fats are typically listed on food labels as partially hydrogenated oils. 

These chemically altered fats fuel inflammation, disrupt cell signaling, scramble DNA, and interfere with many other crucial bodily functions. The human body has a difficult time processing and eliminating them, which means they can build up in the body and potentially contribute to weight gain, unhealthy LDL cholesterol levels, high triglycerides, arterial plaque, and more. They are also associated with diabetes, heart disease, immune dysfunction, and other serious conditions. 

Note: You can find many versions of the above-listed foods made without trans fats — consider the source and read all labels carefully!

Unrefined, Refined, Pressed, and Organic: What’s the Difference? 

Unrefined: Best used as finishing oils or low heat sauteing, unrefined oils (aka raw, virgin and extra-virgin) are minimally processed and known for their brighter flavor, fragrance, and color. Unrefined oils tend to be higher in nutrients than refined oils. Their shelf life is shorter too, so be sure to check the expiration date.  

Refined: These oils undergo a more rigorous filtering and straining process for complete removal of resins and particles. Naturally refined oils have a longer shelf life and can be used for high-heat cooking and frying, as they are more resistant to smoking.  

Pressed or chemically extracted: For soft fruits and nuts such as olives and walnuts, look for “cold-pressed” varieties of oils — this means the oils were pressed without the use of chemical solvents. Some ingredients such as soy and canola are harder and require pre-treatment. For these, seek out brands that are “solvent-free” or “hexane-free.” Many grocery store oils are processed using hexane and other toxic solvents that you’ll want to avoid. 

Organic: Oils that are Certified Organic and Non-GMO Project Verified are the best choice. Genetically modified crops (GMO) are grown with toxic pesticides such as glyphosate that can get stored in your body and damage your health. Soy, corn, and canola are among the top GMO crops in the country, so be sure to always buy organic versions of these. 

How to Use Healthy Fats 

Roughly 25% of your daily calories should come from healthy fat. Pay attention to serving sizes— a small amount of healthy fat goes a long way. 

Here are some tasty ways to incorporate healthy fats into your diet: 

  • Make your own salad dressings and marinades. Experiment with olive, sesame, walnut, flaxseed, avocado, and pumpkin seed oils 
  • Sprinkle flaxseeds, chia, and/or hemp seeds on oatmeal, granola, and salads, or add to smoothies, soups, and stews (after cooking) 
  • Boost your morning smoothie with avocado — it adds a creamy texture, and the flavor is neutral 
  • Snack on raw walnuts throughout the day  
  • Incorporate wild, cold-water wild fish such as salmon into your diet. If cooking fish is intimidating, try easy-to-make salmon and other fish “burgers.”  

Note: The Whole Life Nutrition Cookbook by Alissa Segersten 

and Tom Malterre, MS, CN, and the blog Nourishing Meals are great sources for gluten-free, soy-free, and dairy-free recipes for healing.

What About High Cholesterol? 

In moderation, good-for-you fats can help reduce elevated bad cholesterol, boost HDL (“good”) cholesterol, and improve cardiovascular markers. Some research shows that certain healthy fats — particularly coconut oil — may actually help burn fat and support weight loss. It’s also worth repeating that healthy fats help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress — a critical part of heart health prevention. 

Taking in the Bigger Picture of Fats 

Our bodies naturally crave fat for a reason. Fats provide us with critical nutrients and antioxidants, supply energy, and form the building blocks of cells, tissues, and organs — especially the brain and nervous system. Healthy fats such as olive oil have been used therapeutically for millennia. In Eastern medical traditions, oils infused with therapeutic herbs and compounds play a very important role internally and externally, helping to restore health physically, mentally and emotionally. 

Our views of good nutrition are evolving, with new research findings and a resurgence of interest in time-honored dietary wisdom. As such, our understanding of the importance of healthy fats is also expanding — and that’s a good thing! 

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