Beneficial vs. Harmful Fats: Know the Difference and Improve your Health
There is a misconception about the importance of dietary fats in our diet, and this is largely due to the non-fat or low-fat diet craze in the food and health industry. Fatty acids are given a bad reputation for causing weight gain and cardiovascular diseases. While there is a truth in this, not all fatty acids have the same side effects or benefits to the body . On the one hand, it is necessary to have a moderate intake of fat for weight gain or loss since there are a substantial 9 calories per every gram of fat (protein and carbohydrate only have 4 cal/g). Trans fats also have harmful side effects most notably to cardiovascular functioning, but monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are essential for many processes in our body.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids like Omega-3 are a building block to all the cells in the body, and it is necessary for cell functioning. It is acknowledged for protecting individuals against cardiovascular diseases as well as inflammatory diseases including rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel diseases. Omega-3 is also an important structural component of the brain, thus its therapeutic role in various adult psychiatric and neurodegenerative illnesses . Read further to learn about the different types of fats and how you can benefit your health with Omega-3.
Different Types of Fats
There are bad fats and good fats and knowing the difference can promote holistic wellness. All fatty acids are alike in that they are a chain of carbons atoms bonded to hydrogen atoms, but they differ in length and shapes. The slight structural difference between fats results in different reactions in the body. Bad fats are known as trans fats, beneficial fats include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, and saturated fats have the potential to be bad when consumed excessively. When people go on a non-fat diet, they are vanishing all fats including those that are essential in physiological functioning and disease prevention .
Harmful Trans Fats
It is important to be careful when consuming fatty food because of harmful trans fats. Trans fats are artificially produced byproducts of a process referred to as hydrogenation. This process changes the fluid structure of natural oils into a solid form for preservation purposes. Food with partially hydrogenated oil contains trans fats that are harmful to the body. These foods include margarine, vegetable shortening, commercial pastries, and French fries to name a few. Trans fats increase harmful levels of LDL cholesterol and simultaneously decrease beneficial HDL cholesterol. Additionally, it promotes inflammation, a known source of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic inflammatory diseases. Trans fats also encourage insulin resistance and development of type 2 diabetes. Thus far, there are no known benefits for trans fats hence it is recommended that it is avoided .
Saturated Fats Should be Moderately Consumed
Saturated fats are high in red meat, cheese, and whole-milk dairy products, and appear solid in room temperature. It's the stuff that makes food such as cheeseburgers so delicious but also harmful when consumed frequently. Consumption of saturated fats has been linked to an increase in harmful LDL cholesterols. Worst case scenario involves cholesterol build-up and clogged arteries. It is generally recommended to limit saturated fat intake to less than 10% of caloric intake to avoid harmful side-effects. Furthermore, it is beneficial to replace saturated fats with healthy polyunsaturated fats .
Benefits of Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated Fats
Ever wonder why some cultures appear much healthier than other despite a high-fat diet? For instance, in the Mediterranean region olive oil is celebrated, and in Japan, Canada, Alaska, Greenland, and eastern Siberia, marine mammals and fish are important to traditional foodways. Despite consuming fatty foods, these regions of the world have populations with healthier cardiovascular functioning and suffer less frequently from other chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases compared to fast food nations like the United States. This is due to the high consumption of beneficial monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids .
Monounsaturated fatty acids are commonly available in foods such as nuts and various plant oils (olive, peanut, canola, safflower, sunflower, and avocado). These food products are known for being beneficial for cardiovascular health since they lower harmful LDL cholesterol. A Mediterranean diet rich in monounsaturated fats has been linked with lower risk of heart disease. Thus, in recent years there has been a surge of interest in using olive oil as a healthy alternative in cooking .
Polyunsaturated fatty acids are also linked to healthier cardiovascular functioning, as well as overall physical health. There are two general categories of polyunsaturated fatty acids, and these are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3s are abundant in fish like salmon mackerel, and sardines, as well as flaxseeds, walnuts, and canola oil. Omega-6s are rich in vegetable oils including safflower, soybean, sunflower, walnut, and corn . The consumption of omega-3s and omega-6s should be balanced for optimal health benefits, with recommendations leaning towards higher reliance on omega-3 rich foods .
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids, and these are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and α-linolenic acid (ALA). EPA and DHA are from fish oil and marine microalgae, and ALA from flaxseeds, walnuts, and most vegetable oils. These omega-3 fatty acids are recognized not only for cardiovascular regulation but also for managing proinflammatory compounds in the body. A review of the scientific literature indicates that there are many studies looking into the therapeutic roles of omega-3s in addressing coronary heart disease, obesity, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, psoriasis, asthma, lupus erythematosus, multiple sclerosis, cancer, major depression, bipolar depression and other illnesses. Check out the table below to get an overview of the physiological roles and potential clinical benefits of omega-3s.
Summary of the Physiological Roles and Potential Clinical Benefits of EPA and DHA Omega-3s 
Summary of Fatty Acids' Health Benefits
The non-fat/low-fat diet craze has largely misrepresented the role of essential dietary fats in the body. While there are harmful and potentially bad fats like trans fats and saturated fats, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats have many benefits to the body. When individual deprive their system of essential fats, they also drain the body's capacity to maintain structural integrity and optimal functioning. In cultures with foodways high in omega-3s, there is a lower risk of developing heart problems [1-4], and Omega-3 dietary supplements with fish oil (EPA and DHA) have shown an amalgam of health benefits from maintaining a cardiovascular system to managing inflammatory and autoimmune diseases .
Make sure that you are consuming the right fatty acids and ditch the non-fat diet craze to maintain holistic wellness.