I wish I had some catchy mnemonic or easy trick that I could share with you to clearly explain how to tell a healthy fat from an unhealthy fat, but the reality is that fats are complicated.
We have to throw out all of the over-simplified facts that we’ve been taught about fats. For instance, we can no longer say the following.
- Saturated fats are bad for you. Nope. In fact, coconut oil is a saturated fat that has many health benefits. Even butter is getting good press nowadays thanks to the popularity of products like Bulletproof Coffee.
- All saturated fats are solid at room temperature. Not all of them. MCT oil is a saturated fat but stays in liquid form even when it’s refrigerated.
- Polyunsaturated fats are best. The truth is polyunsaturated fats comprise some of the worst fats (i.e. vegetable oils) and best fats (i.e. omega-3 fatty acids).
The more we learn about the importance of dietary fats for hormone balance and weight loss, the savvier we must become with our diets and the more educated we have to become as consumers.
This beginner’s guide to healthy fats and unhealthy fats is a good place to start.
How to Eat Healthy Fats for Better Weight Loss
Fats 101: As General As You Can Get Regarding Fats
There are four types of fats or fatty acids as they are referred to when they are inside of you.
- Saturated Fats. There are good and bad ones
- Monounsaturated Fats. These have good and bad characteristics
- Polyunsaturated Fats. There are good and bad ones
- Trans Fats. Stay away. These are always bad
These four classifications have to do with the chemical structure of the fat, which we won’t get into here because only 6.2% of you care. (In fact, it’s likely that more of you care about how I calculated that percentage. The answer: I just made it up.)
I bring this chemistry point up because we used to try to classify dietary fats as healthy or not healthy based on their chemical structures. i.e. We thought all saturated fats were bad and all unsaturated fats were good. As it turns out, that’s too simplistic.
Another point to keep in the back of your head is that dietary fats are usually a combination of fatty acids. For instance, you probably think of butter as saturated fat, but in reality, it’s only 60% saturated fat. The rest of the butter is made up of mono and polyunsaturated fats (1).
To classify a fat as good for bad for your body, we have to look at how it affects your health.
Good Fats That Do the Body Good
Coconut oil remains stable when subjected to high heat, which makes it great for cooking. Coconut oil is also great for your health and your weight.
This saturated fat is rich in medium-chain fatty acids, which are easy for your body to turn into energy. Since they are used up as energy, they don’t get stored as fat.
MCT Oil is an oil made up of medium-chain triglycerides or MCTs, which are a type of fatty acid derived from coconut oil.
The unique thing about MCTs is that when you eat them, they go directly from your digestive tract to your liver where they get immediately converted into energy.
Since they are turned into energy, there’s very little left to get stored as body fat.
So here we have fat that you eat that doesn’t turn into body fat, and instead ups your metabolism (2).
This liquid saturated fat can be stirred into coffee or tea or used in cooking.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Extra Virgin Olive Oil contains antioxidants that protect your cells from damage.
EVOO is a monounsaturated fat that is more stable than vegetable oils, but it breaks down when subjected to high heat, so only use it for low heat cooking or use it as a salad dressing.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation by balancing the omega-6s that are so prevalent in our modern-day foods thanks to things like refined vegetable oils.
Aim to get 2 to 4 grams per day of omega-3s from whole foods like…
- Raw nuts/seeds (flax seeds, chia seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, almonds, walnuts)
- Grass-fed meats
- Whole eggs
- Wild-caught fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, tuna, herring)
- High-quality supplement
If you choose to get omega-3s from a supplement, buy a trusted brand that’s bottled in a dark container and store the bottle in your refrigerator.
Omega-3 fatty acids quickly degrade when they come in contact with light, heat, and oxygen turning them from healthy fats into toxic fats.
Nuts and Seeds
These disease-fighting powerhouses are sometimes left out of a diet because they are high in calories.
However, there’s evidence that nuts and seeds help you lose weight thanks to their digestion-slowing fiber, hunger-satisfying fat content, and low glycemic load.
If you need a place to start, add one ounce (about two tablespoons) of walnuts to your salad or blend flax, chia, or hemp seeds into a smoothie.
Avocados are fat-filled fruits.
The monounsaturated fats in these tasty fruits raise the good cholesterol level in your body and lower the bad.
The additional fiber, vitamin E, folate, and protein they contain make them an all-around good addition to your healthy diet.
Try avocado oil for cooking. It remains stable when subjected to heat.
Fatty fish like wild-caught salmon, halibut, herring, mackerel, sardines, and trout are rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
These healthy fats support the integrity of your cell membranes creating a smooth path for hormones and nutrients to cross into your cells where they regulate energy production.
Omega-3s from fatty fish can also reduce insulin resistance making it easier for your body to burn fat.
Grass-fed meats are rich in inflammation-reducing omega-3s.
Conventionally raised animals are fed omega-6-rich grains causing their meats to be high in inflammatory omega-6s.
Added bonuses include the stress-fighting B vitamins and a rich supply of antioxidants (i.e. vitamin E, beta-carotene, and vitamin C) that you get from these foods.
For the most health benefits look for organic and hormone-free beef, and antibiotic-free poultry.
After a long stint on the naughty list, butter is back in vogue in many nutritionist circles.
Those with a dairy allergy might want to stay away from butter, but for others, this mostly saturated fat supplies a good balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids that boost brain function and improve your skin.
Ghee, or clarified butter, is also worth a try and suitable for those with lactose intolerance.
Eggs are back in style.
For many years eggs were unfairly linked to heart disease. Today, they are heralded as a heart-healthy food that improves your cholesterol profile.
Eggs are an inexpensive and convenient way to get a full blend of vitamins, minerals, proteins, and fats.
Cacao butter is the fat used to make chocolate that is great for your skin, which is why it is used in skin products as often as it’s used in the kitchen.
This antioxidant-rich fat has a mild coconut flavor and can be heated, so it’s an appropriate ingredient in sweet or savory dishes.
Bad Fats That Do the Body Harm
Vegetable oils like corn, canola, soy, sunflower and safflower oils contain inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids.
Decades ago, vegetable oils were heralded as heart-healthy fats, but today we know this advice is dead wrong.
These refined oils create inflammation and oxidize or degrade cholesterol in your body making heart disease more likely.
Also, women who use a lot of vegetable oils throw off their omega-6 to omega-3 balance, which can encourage higher than normal levels of male hormones. This is partly what contributes to belly fat in women with PCOS.
Margarine was introduced to replace butter when butter was unfairly deemed a health risk in the 1980s.
The irony is that margarine is the bad guy because it is made from vegetable oil.
If I were offered a choice between butter (saturated fat) and margarine (vegetable oil), I’d pick butter 100% of the time.
If there were one type of fat that would get a universal thumbs down it would be trans fats, also known as hydrogenated fats.
Trans fat is made when liquid oil is converted into a solid fat by adding hydrogen molecules.
If trans fats are so bad, why are they still around? Because they taste good, they are cheap, and they allow products to sit on shelves for years without spoiling.
The only way to avoid them is to avoid the foods they are found in, which includes processed foods, fried foods, shortening (i.e. Crisco), and packaged snack foods.
About the Author
Dr. Becky Gillaspy, DC graduated Summa Cum Laude with research honors from Palmer College of Chiropractic in 1991.