The Good Fats: The trick is to replace the bad fats in your diet with the good ones for optimal health.

The word “fats” has an inherently negative connotation, and when we hear it we tend to automatically think it’s something bad we should avoid. While it’s true that some fats are bad and need to be avoided, others are good for you and can actually contribute to your overall health, and some are just downright ugly!

The truth is, we all need fats for survival. They can help to absorb nutrients, contribute to nerve transmissions and maintain the integral integrity of our cell membranes. But when we consume these fats in excess, they can lead to problems like certain types of cancer, weight gain and even heart disease.

Here’s a breakdown of fats and how they are not all the same:

The Good Fats

Monounsaturated fats (also known as MUFAs) help to lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) levels while increasing the levels of good cholesterol in our bodies, also known as HDL. Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) are also qualified as the good types of fats and work in the same way, to lower bad cholesterol while increasing the good.

Good sources of these types of fats include:

  • Nuts – almonds, hazelnuts, macadamia, walnuts, pistachios, pecans, cashews, soy
  • Oils – flaxseed, olive, avocado, canola, fish, soy
  • Seeds – pumpkin, chia, flax, hemp, sesame
  • Fish – salmon, anchovies, sardines, lake trout, bluefish, herring, tuna, mackerel
  • Olives
  • Avocadoes

Omega-3 fatty acids fall into this category, and have been shown to not only affect cholesterol in the same way as monounsaturated fats but also lower blood pressure, sharpen the mind and prevent heart disease. There are three key components of omega-3 fatty acids – EPA, DHA and ALA. While salmon and other forms of seafood are the main sources of EPA and DHA, ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) is present in plant sources such as nuts and seeds. Flaxseed, chia seed and walnuts are good examples.

The Bad and Ugly

Saturated fat, labeled as the “bad fat”, is the lesser evil when compared with trans fats, and should be consumed in moderation. Saturated and trans fats contribute to higher total overall cholesterol and raise the levels of bad cholesterol, LDL. This type of fat is mainly found in animal products like meat, eggs, seafood and dairy but can also be found in plant-based foods such as coconut oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil.

Trans fats are the ones we should definitely try to stay clear of. They are found in small amounts in foods like meat and dairy, but most of the trans fats of today were created by scientists who started to hydrogenate oil as a way to create more shelf-stable foods, and are now found in a lot of commercially-packaged foods, fried foods – particularly those from fast food restaurants – and pantry staples such as stick margarine and vegetable shortening.

Saturated and trans fats have been linked to an increased risk of prostate or colon cancer, one of the reasons the American Dietary Guidelines and the American Heart Association recommend limiting saturated fats to less than 7% of your total calorie intake (based on 2,000 calories per day) and trans fats to less than 1%. This means less than 140 calories (or 16 grams) should come from saturated fats and less than 20 calories (2 grams) from trans fats. The artificial trans fats are considered to be most dangerous, ranking as one of the ugliest types of fats. Consuming large quantities of this type of fat may lead to increased risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer.