Many of us are carrying around too much of it because we eat too much of it — but experts say certain kinds of fat, in the right amount, can actually be good for you.
“We need fat to help absorb and store vitamins,” said Charlotte Scott, registered dietitian at McKay-Dee Hospital. “Don’t use a lot of fat, but don’t be fat-phobic. I believe in moderation. I’ve seen what happens when someone cuts carbs or fat out. I don’t like labeling any food as bad.”
Rina Jordan, Scott’s counterpart at Ogden Regional Medical Center, said fat is a part of all body processes and helps make hormones, skin and tissue.
Not all fats are created equal, though.
Weber State University associate professor of nutrition Rod Hansen tells his classes that when it comes to fat, there’s good, bad and ugly.
Hansen said the best fats come from plants in cold climates or fish that eat algae.
Cold-climate plants have omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids to keep them from freezing. Those omegas are good for people, too, so canola oil found in Canada is one of the healthiest fats — whereas coconut or palm oil found at the equator is much more saturated.
“The best fats are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Both help lower blood cholesterol. Omega-3 helps decrease blood triglycerides and has other cardiovascular protective qualities,” said Joy Musselman, registered dietitian with McKay-Dee Hospital.
Omega-3 fatty acids are good for the brain, skin and heart health, adds Chelsey Alberts, also a registered dietician with McKay-Dee Hospital.
And Ogden Regional registered dietitian Katie Wewer said they also reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.
The best sources of omega-3s are fatty fishes like trout, salmon and tuna, as well as soybean oil, canola oil, some margarines, walnuts and almonds, said Musselman. Scott adds flax, avocados and olives to the list.
Grant Cefalo, another registered dietitian at McKay-Dee, said olive oil and canola oil are the best oils for cooking, but he recommends using mostly canola because it is comparable in price to vegetable oil.
Wewer said good fats are also found in nut butter, seeds and olives, and in peanut, sunflower and sesame oils. She recommends two four-ounce servings of fish a week to get enough omega-3s.
“There are plant and animal sources, but fish oil is the better source of omegas,” Alberts said. “The body converts omegas from plants. The fish oil is in better form. Fish oil supplements will give you the same benefit.”
Cefalo said it is more important to look for the amount of omega-3 fatty acids than the amount of fish oil in a supplement because a supplement that claims 1,000 milligrams of fish oil may only have 300 milligrams of omegas.
“Labels can be deceptive in supplements. Look for ALA, EPA and DHA. These are types of omega-3 fatty acids. Try to choose triple-strength omega-3,” he said.
Good in moderation
Although monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are good for your heart, they can do damage to your waistline.
“Some fat may be healthy, but never forget that a tablespoon has 120 calories,” Jordan warns. (One gram of fat contains 9 calories.)
Musselman said the average adult with an 1,800- to 2,000-calorie diet should eat no more than 60 grams of fat a day.
“That can be a larger burger and fries at McDonalds” she warns.
Wewer recommends 44-78 grams of fat, with the majority coming from monounsaturated fats.
Scott recommends keeping fat under 30 percent of total calories: “Sixty grams of fat is for a 2,000-calorie diet. A lot of women need less than 2,000.”
Saturated fat is bad and, Jordan says, comes from animal products including butter.
According to Hansen, too much saturated fat can lead to colon, breast and prostate cancer.
“There are many different factors, but (saturated fat) puts you at higher risk,” he said.
Alberts adds that saturated fats increase the risk of heart disease and high cholesterol.
You can have some saturated fat, Hansen said, but it should be less than 7 percent of your total fat intake.
Musselman argues for moderation, warning against denying yourself any food, even bad fats, because, “Saying ‘I can’t have ice cream’ makes you want it even more.”
Trans fat, the ugliest kind of fat, is man-made.
Hansen said trans fats came about when hydrogenation was invented 100 years ago to turn liquid fats into solid fats with a longer shelf life. He said trans fats now are associated with heart disease and also may be associated with infertility.
Trans fats raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol, Wewer adds.
Cefalo recommends avoiding trans fats “at all costs.” Trans fat is so bad for you, Hansen says, that it is the only nutrient you should try to eliminate from your diet.
“Only eat two to three grams of trans fat a day. There’s not a dietitian or doctor in the land that would say trans fats are good,” he said.
It’s not as simple as eating foods labeled “trans-fat-free.” According to Hansen, if “partially hydrogenated” is on the label, there are trans fats there, even if the product says “zero trans fat per serving.”
“Foods can have up to half a gram of trans fats and the (manufacturers) can round down,” he said, and claim to be trans-fat-free on the label. “A half a gram per serving can add up very quickly. We usually eat far more than one serving.”
Cefalo adds that some manufacturers adjust portion sizes until there is less than half a gram of trans fat, allowing them to label the food as zero trans fat per serving.
What makes trans fats desirable for the food industry, Scott said, is probably what make them so bad for us.
“There’s a reason it has a long shelf life. If it’s going to stay long on the shelf, it will stay long in your arteries,” she said. “If it’s not natural, it’s not good to put that in the body. There are plenty of products without trans fat.”