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When it comes to diet, fats generally get a bad rap.

For years, the world was convinced that removing dietary fats was the key to curbing cholesterol and keeping the heart healthy. But recently, scientists have narrowed down on certain fats, recognising that there are different types of fats, some of which are quite beneficial! Research is continuing to evolve on dietary fat, but some facts are clear.

Not all fats are created equal

Some fats are better for you than others and may even help to promote good health. Knowing the difference can help you determine which fats to avoid and which to eat in moderation.

Dietary fat, also known as fatty acids, can be found in foods from both plants and animals. Fat is as essential to your diet as protein and carbohydrates are in fuelling your body with energy. Certain bodily functions also rely on the presence of fat. For example, some vitamins require fat in order to dissolve into your bloodstream and provide nutrients. However, the excess calories from eating too much fat of any type can lead to weight gain.

What are the less healthy fats?

Two types of fats — saturated fat and trans fat — have been identified as potentially harmful to your health. Most saturated fats are animal fats. They’re found in high fat meats and dairy products. Trans fat should be avoided while saturated fats should be eaten very sparingly.

Saturated fat sources include:

fatty cuts of beef, pork and lamb

dark chicken meat and poultry skin

high fat dairy foods (whole milk, butter, cheese, sour cream, ice cream)

tropical oils (coconut oil, palm oil, cocoa butter)

lard

Trans fat: Avoid when possible

Short for “trans fatty acids,” trans fat appears in foods that contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. These are the unhealthiest fats. You might find trans fat in:

fried foods (French fries, doughnuts, deep-fried fast foods)

vegetable shortening

baked goods (cookies, cakes, pastries)

processed snack foods (crackers, microwave popcorn)

Like saturated fat, trans fat can raise LDL (bad) cholesterol, also known as “bad” cholesterol. Trans fat can also suppress HDL (good) cholesterol levels, or “good” cholesterol.

A 2018 review of 15 randomized controlled trials looked at saturated fats and heart disease. The researchers concluded that replacing saturated fat in your diet with polyunsaturated fats can reduce one’s weight, also reducing your heart disease risk.

“Just losing 10% of your body weight can also curb your risk of heart disease” suggests American Heart Association.

Foods with good fats

Doctors consider monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat more “heart-healthy” fats. Foods that primarily contain these healthier fats tend to be liquid when they’re at room temperature. Research has consistently shown that eating foods that contain monounsaturated fat can improve your blood cholesterol level and decrease your risk for cardiovascular disease.

Foods with Monounsaturated fat include:

nuts (almonds, cashews, peanuts, pecans)

vegetable oils (olive oil, peanut oil)

peanut butter and almond butter

avocado

Polyunsaturated fat – Essential Fats

Polyunsaturated fats are known as “essential fats” because the body cannot make them and needs to get them from foods. Plant-based foods and oils are the primary source of this fat. Like monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat can decrease your risk for heart disease by lowering blood cholesterol levels, according to the American Heart Association.

A certain type of this fat, called omega-3 fatty acids, has been shown to be particularly beneficial for your heart. Omega-3s appear to not only decrease the risk of coronary artery disease, but they also help lower blood pressure levels and guard against irregular heart rates. The following types of foods contain omega-3 fatty acids:

Seafood – salmon, herring, sardines, trout

Nuts & seeds – walnuts, almonds, flaxseed, chia seeds

canola oil

avocados

In addition to omega-3 fatty acids, you can find polyunsaturated fat in the following foods, which contain omega-6 fatty acids: tofu, roasted soybeans, walnuts, seeds (sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds) and vegetable oils (corn oil, safflower oil, sesame oil, sunflower oil).

The bottom line

Healthier fats are an important part of your diet, but it’s still crucial to moderate your consumption of them because all fats are high in calories. It’s a good idea to incorporate foods that contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats into your diet. It’s a strategy that will help your heart and improve your quality of life.