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Unhealthy Versus Healthy Fats: What's the Difference?

  • 4 min read

In your quest to stay as healthy as possible, it's easy to consider all fat as bad. After all, the industry is rife with recipes, diets, and health foods marketed to be low-fat.

Yet, the reality is that there are dozens of different kinds of fats, including healthy fats. Each one plays a different role in your health and affects your body in a unique way.

Today, we're breaking down the differences between these kinds to help you make smart dietary choices moving forward. Read on to learn everything you need to know!

Important Facts About Fat 

In some ways, fat's bad rap is justifiable. 

There are certain types of fat that can have a negative effect on our health, leading to chronic conditions including:

  • Diabetes
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Cancer 
  • Obesity

However, it's important to keep in mind that not all facts are created equal. In fact, some can even be beneficial to your health! When you learn the differences, you know which fats to avoid and which to incorporate into your diet in moderation. 

Researchers continue to learn more about dietary fat, also known as fatty acids. Present in both plant-based and animal-based foods, fat is an essential part of a healthy, balanced diet.

In addition to offering significant health benefits, some kinds of fat are also necessary for certain bodily functions. In this way, your body relies on fats similar to how it requires protein and carbohydrates for energy

For instance, some vitamins cannot dissolve into your bloodstream without it. 

Knowing this, let's take a look at the main differences that separate healthy fats from those not-so-healthy ones. 

What are Unhealthy Fats?

There are two main types of fats that are known to be potentially harmful to your health. These include:

  • Saturated fat
  • Trans fat

Not sure where they're lurking? Most of the foods that contain these unhealthy fats take on a solid form, even at room temperature. They include:

  • Butter
  • Shortening
  • Margarine
  • Beef fat
  • Pork fat

When examining the two individually, trans fats are the most unhealthy. If possible, it's best to avoid them at all costs. On the other hand, saturated fats are OK in moderation. 

Saturated Fats

Saturated fats are most prevalent in animal products. You'll find them in fatty meats and most dairy products. They're also found in tropical oils (e.g. palm oil, coconut oil) as well as lard.

Too-high levels of saturated fat can increase both your blood cholesterol levels and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels. Some research also suggests it can increase your risk of heart disease.

For this reason, the American Heart Association suggests that saturated fats make up only 5% to 6% of the total calories you consume.

Trans Fats

Trans fats are found in foods that contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Their full name is trans fatty acids. 

Generally known as the most unhealthy fats you can consume, they are found in:

  • Fried foods
  • Vegetable shortening
  • Margarine
  • Bakery goods
  • Processed snacks 

In addition to amplifying your blood cholesterol and LDL levels, trans fat lowers your high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels, also known as your “good” cholesterol. It can also lead to excess inflammation in your body, which can cause a variety of negative effects, including:

  • Stroke
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Diabetes

When in doubt, always read your ingredients lists. If the food you're eyeing has any amount of hydrogenated oil, it includes trans fat. Some companies will leverage lenient marketing laws and claim "no trans fats" on their package while still containing trace amounts of this oil.

What are Healthy Fats?

The two primary types of healthy fats include:

  • Monounsaturated fat
  • Polyunsaturated fat

When consumed moderately, these can be beneficial to your diet. Compared to unhealthy fats, they are usually liquid at room temperature. 

Monounsaturated Fats

There are many healthy foods and oils that contain monounsaturated fats. Incorporating them into your diet can help decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease and improve your blood cholesterol levels. 

A few examples include:

  • Nuts
  • Peanut butter/almond butter
  • Vegetable oils (peanut oil, olive oil)
  • Avocado

Polyunsaturated Fats

One thing to know about healthy polyunsaturated fats? Your body can't make them on its own. That means you have to get them from food!

It's worth seeking out these items, however, as polyunsaturated fats can also lower your blood cholesterol and help you ward off heart disease. Thankfully, there are many delicious, plant-based foods and oils that can make it easy to meet your daily recommended intake. 

One of the best types to consume? Omega-3 fatty acids. 

Found most prevalently in fatty fish, omega-3 fatty acids help reduce your risk of coronary artery disease. They can also lower your blood pressure and help improve your overall heart health.

You can find them in:

  • Salmon
  • Trout
  • Sardines
  • Herring

In addition, omega-3 fatty acids are also present in flaxseed, as well as soybean and canola oils. Yet, they aren't the only kinds of polyunsaturated fats. Omega-6 fatty acids are also beneficial, and you can find them in:

  • Walnuts
  • Tofu
  • Seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, sesame)
  • Soy (roasted soybeans, soy nut butter)
  • Vegetable oils (corn oil, safflower oil, sesame oil)

The Important Role of Fats in Your Diet

In moderation, consuming healthy fats can help balance out your diet and lead to beneficial health changes. However, consuming too many unhealthy fats can have the opposite effect.

Ultimately, knowledge is key.

Be sure to check the labels of the foods you eat if you're concerned about the kids of fat they contain. Remember that even if you see certain oils or fats listed as ingredients, they aren't necessarily bad. 

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