It’s something we hear and see every day to the point where it has lost its meaning to most of us. “Limit saturated fats in your diet and eat more good fats”. Usually that’s as detailed as it gets whether you’re getting advice from a doctor or reading something online.
On some nutrition labels (far from all), these good fats are listed as polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats. Beyond knowing what they are called and that they are “good”, the majority of us won’t really understand why these fats are better than saturated fats.
It’s easy to say protein is good because it helps us build muscle, carbs are healthy because they give us energy, but fats are healthy because… why? In this article we’ll be talking about why we need unsaturated fats specifically, what foods to find them in, as well as why saturated fats might actually not be that unhealthy in moderation either.
Why Do We Need Monounsaturated Fats?
This fat, unlike saturated fats, contains an unsaturated carbon bond (hence the name, one carbon bond=mono). Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and, like saturated fats, still contain 9 calories per gram, making it over twice as calorically dense as carbs and protein.
The health benefits of this fat are quite extensive, with the most notable effect being its ability to lower LDL (the bad cholesterol) and raise HDL (the good cholesterol), which will lower your risk of heart attacks or strokes.
Other research has shown a positive effect between a diet high in unsaturated fats (sometimes referred to as the Mediterranean diet) and lower body fat levels compared to diets comprised of carbohydrates and refined trans fats (the western diet).
While more studies need to be conducted, there is also a correlation between a diet high in monounsaturated fats and a lower risk of breast cancer. Foods high in monounsaturated fats include:
- Olive oil (70 grams of monounsaturated fat per 100 grams)
- Canola oil (60 grams per 100 grams)
- Almonds (30 grams per 100 grams)
- Peanuts (25 grams per 100 grams)/peanut oil (40 grams per 100 grams)
- Other nuts such as pecans (40 grams per 100 grams) and brazillian (25 per 100 grams)
- Avocados (10 grams per 100 grams),
Why Do We Need Polyunsaturated Fats?
Like monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats also contain unsaturated carbon bonds, always more than one though (again this is where the name comes from, multiple bonds=poly).
These fats also contain 9 calories per gram like all other fats, but have even more unique benefits that the other unsaturated fat doesn’t. What makes polyunsaturated fats unique is that omega-3 and 6 fatty acids fall under its umbrella.
Besides also having the ability to increase HDL and lower LDL, polyunsaturated fats can actually lower your blood pressure, giving you even more protection against heart attacks and strokes. Certain types of polyunsaturated fats can also help with joint issues, lubricating them to put it simply.
While it needs more research to be better understood, preliminary studies might show a positive benefit between omega-3 supplementation and helping slow the aging process (specifically mental aging that causes degenerative diseases). Some foods that are high in polyunsaturated fats include:
- Soybean oil (60 grams of polyunsaturated fat per 100 grams)
- Walnuts (50 grams per 100 grams)
- Flax seeds (40 grams per 100 grams)
- Sunflower seeds (20 grams per 100 grams) and Pumpkin seeds (10 grams per 100 grams)
- Fatty fish (5-10 grams per 100 grams)
What About Saturated Fats?
It has been an extremely long-standing health recommendation to limit saturated fats in the diet – the solid at room temperature, delicious type of fats. Very old studies from decades ago (that are definitely, very outdated), listed saturated fats as the main cause of obesity, heart disease, and other life-threatening medical issues.
More recently though we are learning that saturated fats might not have that much of an impact on cholesterol and obesity as we might have thought.
It now appears that saturated fats can increase HDL, which doesn’t cause the waxy backup in your arteries that causes strokes and heart attacks and has no effect on LDL, which does.
In some cases, saturated fats can be used as a healthy energy source, especially in the form of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) found in foods such as coconut oil, palm oil, and to a lesser extent cheese, yogurt and milk. These fats (and the unsaturated fats as well) are very useful for healthy individuals who eat a high fat, ketogenic diet.
Not enough studies have been done clearing its name yet, but you should still look forward to saturated fats being marked down as the “bad guy” much less often in the future than it has been for the past half-century.
Take Home Message
We’ve always been told to eat our “good fats”, hopefully now you can understand why you need each form of unsaturated fat. Not to mention why saturated fat might not be as artery clogging and heart attack inducing as we once believed.
The connection between fat and an unhealthy diet most likely came about when the current western diet began to take shape. Of course combining fat, refined sugars, high levels of sodium and a lack of vitamins and nutrients will lead to obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and a wide host of ill effects! In isolation though in an otherwise healthy diet, fat is another essential nutrient that we need to function properly.
What is important to keep in mind is the caloric value of fat, which is 9 calories per gram. Besides being over twice as many calories per gram as carbs and protein, it is also very easy to eat a lot of calories very quickly from fat. Especially unsaturated fats in the form of oils, that are easy to load up on in meals.
When it comes down to it, energy balance (better known as calories in vs. calories out) is the only thing that matters when it comes to weight gain and ultimately how at risk you are for metabolic and cardiovascular diseases. Overeating any type of food into a calorie surplus, whether it be kale laced with broccoli, chia seeds and quinoa, or a high fat and sugar fast food diet will result in adding body fat to your frame.
At the end of the day, just remember to make sure you aren’t overeating your saturated or unsaturated fats (as well as your other macronutrients), and in moderation they all have very important health benefits!