For many years, we have been taught that consuming fats of any kind is dangerous to cardiovascular health and cholesterol. However, this is based on a study from decades ago that may have missed some important facts. Not all types of fat are bad for you, and in many cases, replacing saturated fat with other, more healthy fats can actually help improve overall health. (1)
What are fats, really?
There are three main types of fats: saturated fats, unsaturated fats, and trans fats.
Trans fats are created through industrial processes. These are also called partially hydrogenated oils, and are found in many fried foods and baked pastries.
Saturated fat comes from animal products, such as beef, lamb, butter, cream, cheese and other dairy products, as well as coconut oil, palm oil and cocoa butter.
Unsaturated fats are found in fish, avocados, olives, walnuts and vegetable oils, such as sunflower, olive, canola, corn, soybean and safflower oils.
Why does the kind of fat matter?
The American Heart Association recommends limiting the intake of trans fats, because it raises bad cholesterol levels, and lowers beneficial cholesterol levels. (2) Due to the chemical processing of vegetables oils, such as canola or corn, I do not recommend using them. Another aspect of oils to consider is the use of genetically modified organism (GMOs). Most corn, soy, and even canola is genetically modified and is suspected to create liver, kidney, and hormonal dysfunction. However, not all types of fat are bad for you or your heart. Some are necessary and beneficial.
What are some benefits of fats?
A well-balanced diet requires a healthy amount of fats. Not only can some fats lower bad cholesterol levels, but they can also decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, two types of unsaturated fats, provide your body with essential lipids that your body doesn’t produce itself. (3). Avocados, oils, fatty fish, and nuts and seeds should be a regular part of any balanced diet.
Studies have found that diets high in healthy fats — such as those with avocados, coconut oil, and fish oil — help decrease the risk of major cardiovascular diseases, such as stroke or death. (4) Similar studies have found these diets improve memory retention (5), as well as a link between these diets and a lowered risk of breast cancer in older women. (6)
Why do fats get such a bad rap, then?
Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death globally, with more than 17.3 million deaths per year, on average, (7) so it’s no wonder that health professionals and scientists alike have been trying to find causes and solutions for years. When cardiovascular-related diseases started becoming more prevalent in the mid-1950s, doctors and scientists began looking for causes.
Ancel Keys, a pathologist at the University of Minnesota, was one of the first to propose that increased cholesterol, a cause of heart disease, could come from saturated fats. Keys performed a flawed study, (8) but at the time, the health community was desperate for answers, so it accepted the study, regardless of flaws, including low sample numbers and only sampling people likely to give results in line with his hypothesis. The American Heart Association adopted a stance advising Americans to cut back on saturated fats in 1961; the U.S. government later adopted the policy in 1977. (9)
What changed since then?
In short, more studies have been conducted, and more theories tested. Since the 1960s, more scientists and health professionals have researched different kinds of fat and how they help the body. It is still best to limit intake of trans fats, found in fried food or pastries. However, naturally occurring fats, scientists found, are necessary for a well-balanced diet. These fats, found naturally in foods such as avocados, fatty fish, and nuts help improve cholesterol levels, cardiovascular health, memory, and have even been linked to lowered risk for certain types of cancers.