Whether you’re an omnivore, vegetarian, vegan or raw food eater, you need at least four portions of good fat each day.
In fact, your body needs fat first and foremost as an energy source, but also for:
- The absorption of certain minerals and nutrients
- The absorption of fat-soluble vitamins: A, D, E and K
- The production of cell membranes and the myelin sheaths that protect your nerves
- Blood coagulation
- The synthesis of sex hormones and cholesterol
Eating small amounts of good fat helps you feel sufficiently full, controls your appetite and helps you make better food choices (because when you’re hungry , you probably won’t pick the healthiest foods).
Know what to choose
To stay healthy, keep in mind that some fats are better than others. The good fats: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. The bad fats: processed or trans fats. The slightly less bad fats: saturated.
First, the bad ones
Trans fats . These are made by taking good oils and using a process called hydrogenation to chemically transform them into fats that don’t become rancid as fast. They typically appear in ingredients lists as “partially hydrogenated” or simply “hydrogenated” and are found in such products as:
- commercial baked goods: crackers, cookies, pastries, etc.
- commercial peanut butters (where the oil doesn’t rise to the top)
Based on research conducted at Harvard University, for every 2% of your caloric intake from trans fats, your risk of heart disease increases by 23%. Trans fats offer no health benefit and there’s no safe amount as far as your health is concerned. In Canada, trans fats must be listed in a product’s nutrition table. But be careful: if the quantity is under a certain threshold, food manufacturers are allowed to round it off to 0 g in the table and can even specify “no trans fats” on the package.
The less bad
Saturated fats are easy to recognize because they’re solid at room temperature. A good example is bacon fat. Saturated fats are found in:
- red meat
- whole milk and other full-fat dairy products
- baked goods and pastries
- natural coconut oil (without added hydrogenated oil); this one has the advantage of being a plant-based saturated fat, which doesn’t have a negative effect on cholesterol, while being a source of fibre, vitamins, protein and minerals. It’s a good replacement for butter and trans fats. Despite the praise, coconut oil should still be eaten in moderation.
Because they have a negative effect on cholesterol, you should limit saturated fats to 10% of your total daily fat intake. While saturated fats get a lot of bad press, a few recent studies have shown that it’s worse for your health to replace saturated fats with processed foods labelled as “light” (such as “light” salad dressings), which instead contain large amounts of carbohydrates.
While they don’t prove that saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease, recent studies have shown that replacing saturated fat in your diet with polyunsaturated fats does reduce the risk.
The good ones
Good fats stay liquid at room temperature and are split into two categories: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
The benefits of monounsaturated fats were discovered in the 1960s by a study that found that people living in Mediterranean countries have a much lower incidence of heart disease despite their high-fat diet. In the end, it all boiled down to one thing: olive oil.
Polyunsaturated fats are those the body uses to build cell membranes and myelin sheaths, the thin coating that surrounds and protects nerve cells. They’re called essential fatty acids, because they’re, well, essential!
The main groups of polyunsaturated fats are the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. While both are essential, the relationship between the two is also just as important. The typical North American diet has too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3.
The good fats are found in:
- fatty fishes such as salmon, mackerel (omega-3 )
- seeds: flax, sunflower, pumpkin, sesame
- olive, peanut and canola oils, as well as safflower and high-oleic sunflower oils
- pulses (omega-3)
- natural peanut butter and natural almond butter —yes, you’ll have to stir them! But once stirred, just put them in the fridge to keep the oil from separating again. Most commercial peanut butters contain hydrogenated oil, so be careful, especially if you’re a big fan of PB&J!
But even good fats need to be eaten in moderation, to the tune of four portions per day. One portion is equal to one teaspoon or 28 g of nuts.
Chances are that, with this information in hand, you’ll be doing a lot more label-reading the next time you go shopping.