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What Are the Good vs Bad Types of Fat?

Don’t be afraid of fat. Instead, learn about the different types of fat and how to make better food choices.

Foods containing different types of fat, such as eggs, brazil nuts, mackerel fish, and coconut oil, on a wooden table.

Fat has a bad rap when it comes to diets, but not all types of fats are equal. Your body needs a moderate amount of fat from food for cells to work. While excessive consumption of certain fats is typically associated with heart disease, there are fats that you need to eat to keep you healthy. 

Confused? Don’t worry. This article will help you tell the difference between healthy and unhealthy types of fat in your food.

Saturated and Unsaturated Fat 

There are two main types of dietary fat: saturated and unsaturated. This is also why the word “saturated” is used to describe fats that turn solid at room temperature, like lard. Unsaturated fat remains liquid at room temperature, like olive oil.

Diets high in saturated fats increase high LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol levels, a risk factor for heart disease. LDL cholesterol forms as plaques in your arteries more easily. 

According to dietary guidelines, saturated fats take up between 5% to 11% in a balanced diet.

Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat

An older woman and child standing next to a wet market stall selling freshly caught fish.
A modern diet lacks omega-3 fatty acids, a polyunsaturated fat found in oily saltwater fish such as mackerel.

Unsaturated fat falls into two categories – monosaturated and polysaturated. Both dietary monounsaturated fats (MUFA) and polyunsaturated fats (PUFA) are “good fats” because they tend to raise HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol.

This is the “good” cholesterol as it carries excess blood cholesterol back to the liver for proper removal. These unsaturated fats are also critical to the proper functioning of your brain and central nervous system.

Omega fatty acids 

Omega fatty acids are found in unsaturated fats. Omega-9 is the most dominant type of MUFA you consume in your diet and make in your body. You can find them in olive oil, canola oil, and almonds. 

Omega-3 and omega-6 are PUFA and considered essential fatty acids because you can only obtain them through the food you eat. Oily fish, chia seeds, and walnuts contain omega-3, while vegetable oils, meat, and eggs have omega-6. Avoid eating too much deep-fried food and red meat as these will lead to excessive omega-6 and inflammation in the body.

An easy way to incorporate more omega-3 into your diet is to take a drink made of oats and flaxseeds.

Trans fat 

Trans fat is also a type of unsaturated fat. Trace amounts found in nature, such as dairy products and meat, are safe. However, consuming industrial trans-fat found in foods like margarine, fast foods and processed foods is linked to adverse health effects.

Too much trans fat can increase the risk of heart disease and other health problems.

Why Do We Sometimes Crave Fat? 

You may think you’re craving french fries or ice cream, but your body is trying to tell you that it needs more healthy fats. Additionally, not getting enough fibre, vitamins, and minerals through vegetables and fruits can upset your gut flora.

Man stares at a table filled with rich, sweet, salty foods including a soft drink, donuts, hamburger, fried chicken, fries, and chips.
Craving rich fatty foods is most likely a signal that you need to consume healthy fats in a balanced diet.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), specific organ imbalances are linked to cravings for certain flavours or types of food. For example, the Spleen and stomach are associated with obsession, the psychological drive behind food cravings. A craving for rich, fatty foods also indicates an imbalance related to your Liver or gallbladder.

The solution — a balanced diet! In TCM, a common guideline is to eat a meal with all the five flavours to nourish each organ system: 

  • Sweet (stomach, Spleen): Fruits, sweet potatoes, sweet vegetables like carrots 
  • Salty (Kidney, bladder): Saltwater fish, seaweed, soy sauce, miso 
  • Pungent (Lungs, large intestine): Ginger, garlic, onion 
  • Sour (Liver, gallbladder): Pickles and vinegar 
  • Bitter (Heart, small intestine): Dark chocolate, radish, bitter gourd 

Ultimately, healthy eating is less about nit-picking over the types of fat in your food and more about balanced nutrition. Stop fearing fat and understand it as a macronutrient serving different bodily functions. The key is going after healthy fat sources and ensuring you get all the macronutrients and micronutrients you need in your diet. 

Did you find this article on fat helpful? Share this with someone who needs to know about dietary fat.

This is an adaptation of the article “脂肪型大解哪一种最健康? (第一篇)!”, which first appeared on the Health123 website.

References

  1. The American Oil Chemists’ Society. 2022. Is it time to reconsider the role of saturated fats in the human diet? [online] [Accessed 14 February 2023] 
  2. LiveScience.com. 2022. Is saturated fat bad for you? [online] [Accessed 14 February 2023] 
  3. Multi-Disciplinary Publishing Institute (MDPI) – Nutrients. 2018. Inflammation, not Cholesterol, Is a Cause of Chronic Disease. [online] [Accessed 14 February 2023] 
  4. Frontiers in Pharmacology. 2021. Mechanism and Basis of Traditional Chinese Medicine Against Obesity: Prevention and Treatment Strategies [online] [Accessed 14 February 2023] 
  5. FoodInsight.org. 2020. Oh My Omega: The Difference Between Omega-3, 6, and 9. [Accessed 14 February 2023] 
  6. LifeExtension.com. Food Cravings: Causes, Triggers & Myths. [online] [Accessed 14 February 2023] 
  7. AcuFinder.com. Curb Food Cravings with Oriental Medicine. [online] [Accessed 14 February 2023] 

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