Good Fat vs. Bad Fat: A Simple Healthy Guide
Judging by the questions I’m getting from my patients and readers, there’s some confusion about fat, particularly the saturated variety. I’m not surprised. There are so many myths when it comes to fat, even doctors sometimes have a hard time sorting it all out. That’s really a shame. Getting the right kind of fat is extremely important to your health, both physical and emotional. So let’s revisit the subject, because if there’s one thing nearly everyone needs, it’s the good kind of fat. As I’ve said before, the right fats are essential to a fully functional body and we quite literally cannot live without them.
During the past 30 years, fat has been blamed for everything from heart disease to obesity. More recently, certain fats – known as Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) — have become the darlings of many of the more forward-thinking members of the medical community, because of their singular ability to enhance our health. But the human body cannot produce EFAs, so we must get them from either food or supplements.
What’s So Good About the Good Fats?
There are three categories of EFAs — omega-3s, omega-6s, and omega-9s. Right now, we’re only concerned with the first two. While both omega-3s and 6s are healthy, the key issue is getting the correct balance. The Standard American Diet (SAD) is literally loaded with omega-6s, found in popular cooking oils, like corn, soy, and safflower oils. As a result, far too many Americans are deficient in omega-3 EFAs.
List of benefits you can get from balanced intake of omega-3 and omega-6 EFAs
- EFAs provide the body, especially the heart, with energy.
- EFAs play a major role in the creation of healthy cell membranes, nerve cells, and hormone-like substances called prostaglandins, which we need to help deal with inflammation and pain.
- EFAs are vital to multiple bodily functions, including proper brain functions, nutrient absorption, and healthy skin and hair.
List of conditions caused by a deficiency of EFAs
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- High blood pressure
- Kidney disease
- Certain types of cancer
- Mental and emotional disturbances
- Digestive disorders
- Alzheimer’s disease and mild cognitive impairment
How Did We Get Here?
Back in our grandparents’ day, humans could get omega-3s from animals that grazed in pastures. Today’s grain-fed livestock no longer provides us with these good fats, though. The best sources of omega-3s now are fish, specifically, fatty, cold-water fish like salmon, herring, and anchovies. Unfortunately, heavy metals and toxic chemicals in polluted water have seriously tainted fish. Add to this the fact that many people do not like fish, and it’s easy to see how we have strayed so far from a healthy, balanced intake of these good fats.
Experts estimate that the ideal ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s is 1:1, not the 20:1 most people currently consume. Balanced omega intake is the diet our ancestors ate. The hunter-gatherer diet of our earliest predecessors consisted of foods rich in omega-3s, whether it was the greens and seeds they ate or the animals, fish, and birds raised on grass, algae, and seeds. As a result, earlier generations ate roughly equal amounts of omega-3s and omega-6s. Unfortunately, the typical American consumes about 20 times as many omega-6s as omega 3s, creating an environment in the body where disease and various disorders can thrive.
How To Get the Fats You Need
But our world is so different – can we really duplicate a good-fat-rich diet today? Absolutely! It’s simply a matter of getting more omega-3s, and fewer omega-6s.
- Look into supplementing your diet with omega-3s, preferably with a product that has been purified or molecularly distilled to remove toxins. The best results are usually obtained from products that have two to three times the amount of DHA as EPA. Flaxseed oil is a good alternative for vegans or those who are allergic to fatty fish.
- Replace any omega-6 vegetable cooking oils (safflower, soybean, corn, sunflower) with healthier omega-3s (olive or grapeseed oil).
- When shopping, avoid buying processed and prepared foods containing omega-6 oils.
- Discuss taking fish oil with your physician if you are currently taking prescription medication.
If your diet is meat-and-potatoes fare, you’re probably getting far more saturated fat and very little omega 3s, leaving you vulnerable to a long list of ailments. Or maybe you eat mostly prepared, processed foods, in which case you are probably getting lots of omega-6 fatty acids (from corn, safflower, sunflower, and other vegetable- or seed-based oils) and few omega 3s. Here again, we have a scenario that is not enhancing your health.
Clearly, EFAs truly are as essential as their name implies. If you are missing out on these nutrients, I do hope you take steps to correct the situation, by eating more fish, taking omega-3 supplements, or both. My patient Shelley discovered how important EFAs are after a potentially serious health scare that could have been avoided with proper nutrition.
In the hope of preventing others from experiencing this type of event, I’ve formulated a stable product combining toxin-free EFAs with vitamin D3, another nutrient that’s often lacking among my patients. The omega-3s in this product are sourced from squid, so it’s naturally high in DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which is essential for the health of the heart and brain.
For those who are allergic or don’t like fish, supplementing with a product like this eliminates those issues. Simply take two grams (2,000 mg) daily. Vegetarians or those who are allergic to fish can substitute flaxseed oil. A typical dose is 1 to 2 tablespoons daily.
How To Tell Good Fats From Bad Fats
Here’s a chart that you may find helpful when it comes to sorting out good and bad fats. If you’re having trouble keeping all this straight, just remember that fats go from good to bad alphabetically, with monounsaturated being the best, polyunsaturated being good (when omega-3s and 6s are balanced), and saturated, with trans fats being the least healthy.
These reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol. Found in nuts, avocado and olive oil.
Found in corn, soy and similar vegetable oils. Omega-3s and 6s are in this category, but we eat far too many 6s and not enough 3s, creating the perfect environment for a long list of ailments. These also reduce LDL cholesterol, but if your omega-3s and 6s are not balanced, these may encourage cancer development and lower HDL (good) cholesterol.
Found in meat, dairy products, eggs, and most fats that are solid at room temperature, like shortening. These raise LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower HDL (good) cholesterol. No more than 10 percent of daily calories should come from saturated fat.
These include partially hydrogenated oils (margarine, shortening) and processed foods made with them. You don’t need artery-clogging trans fats at all and should avoid them whenever possible.
What About Coconut Oil?
There is one saturated fat you should be familiar with, because it has health benefits not found in others – coconut oil. Here is a good example of how science can help us separate the good from the not so good. Researchers have found that saturated fats made up of medium chain triglycerides (MCT) – like the lauric acid in coconut oil – have several advantages. One, they metabolize more quickly than other fats, and two, they are better absorbed by the intestine, so they’re don’t end up as a layer of flab on your belly. In addition, preliminary studies suggest that coconut oil could be helpful for weight management, but that area needs further study.
You can use coconut oil in cooking and baking the same way you would use any other oil. The coconut flavor is usually quite mild and goes well with many foods (see my Coconut Smoothie with Banana and Berry Recipe). You can also use coconut oil on your skin and hair. Many patients have told me that coconut oil is excellent for treating dry skin, and it has even been shown to be effective at fighting toenail fungus! If you are currently taking prescription medication, please discuss the addition of omega-3s with your physician.
The bottom line is this: We need the right fats to be healthy, but more is not better. Use fats in moderation, so that no more than 30 percent of your total daily calories comes from fat. Of that, only about 10 percent should be in the form of saturated fat. Overdoing saturated fat intake puts you at risk for significantly higher cholesterol levels, weight gain, heart disease, high blood pressure, colon cancer, and other serious health conditions. So get to know the good fats and make them part of your daily regimen.