The majority of the fats we consume in our diet are triglycerides. These contain three fatty acids. The types of fatty acids that make up the triglyceride have different chemical structures. This is what defines the type of fat. The major types of fatty acids are saturated, unsaturated, and trans.
We are always learning more about dietary fats. Currently, we know that the type of fat is more important to our health than the total amount of fats we consume.
Unsaturated Fats: Get More!
Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and help to reduce cholesterol and reduce risk of cardiovascular disease. This is especially true when these healthier fats are replacing saturated fat sources in the diet (such as replacing butter with oils when cooking). In addition to heart health, they are also crucial to the optimal health and functioning of the brain and nerves. Unsaturated fats come in two types: poly and mono. Both are associated with better health.
- Monounsaturated: Found in avocados, nuts and seeds, and oils including peanut, olive and canola. Research shows that monounsaturated fats improve insulin levels and help manage blood sugar.
- Polyunsaturated: There are three main types of polyunsaturated fats – omega 3s, 6s, and 9s. Two polyunsaturated fatty acids are essential because our bodies cannot produce them. We get them through our diet. These fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid) and linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid). Sources of polyunsaturated fats are cold water fish including salmon, sardines and tuna, oils including soybean, corn and sunflower, and nuts and seeds including walnuts, almonds and hemp seeds.
Saturated Fats: Enjoy in Moderation
Saturated fats are solid at room temperature. We find them in animal product,s like meat and dairy, and in tropical oils, like coconut and palm oil.
Saturated fats increase “bad” LDL cholesterol as well as “good” HDL cholesterol. Recently, we learned that saturated fats do not increase the risk of heart disease as much as we thought. That said saturated fats are not necessarily the healthiest. It just means that they are not as harmful to health as we thought.
Trans Fats: Avoid as Much as Possible
We find the majority of trans fats in processed foods, like cookies, cakes, crackers, candy, margarine, and peanut butter. There are trivial amounts of naturally occurring tran-fats in butter and in meat.
Eating trans-fats raises “bad” cholesterol and lowers “good” cholesterol. They also increase heart disease risk. For these reasons, we recommend that you avoid trans-fats completely.
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Bridget Shea, RD, is a clinical dietitian at The University of Vermont Medical Center.