Both fats and oils are an essential part of a healthy diet because they provide energy and transport vital nutrients to organs and body systems. However, certain types of fats and oils are healthier than others and excessive consumption of either can contribute to an increased risk of obesity, coronary heart disease and other conditions.
Often called “solid” fats, saturated fats may be visible, floating near the top of foods like meat stews or yogurts. Less visible but still present saturated fats are found in many foods, including cheeses, fatty meats, whole-fat milk, ice cream and butter. Primarily, saturated fats are found in animal products. They get their name because the fat's carbon atoms are highly saturated with hydrogen. Diets high in these foods are linked to an increased risk of chronic diseases, especially coronary artery disease.
Fats that only have a single double-bonded carbon atom are known as monounsaturated fats. Liquid at room temperature, monounsaturated fats are found in foods like olive oil, sesame oil, avocados, nuts, peanut butter and sunflower oil. Eaten in moderation, monounsaturated fats can actually be beneficial for health. These fats can reduce the risk of stroke and heart disease, lower bad cholesterol levels and provide high levels of vitamin E, an important antioxidant.
Fats with at least two double-bonded carbons are known as polyunsaturated fats. Good sources of these fats include safflower oil, corn oil, soybean oil and fatty fish like trout, salmon, herring and mackerel. When eaten moderately in place of saturated fats, polyunsaturated fats can be a healthy choice. They can lower the risk of heart disease and also reduce cholesterol levels in the blood. This classification of fats includes essential fats that cannot be produced by the body, like omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The only way to get these essential fats is from your diet. Omega-3 and omega-6 are essential for brain function and healthy body development and growth.
Trans Fatty Acids
Processed foods are often loaded with trans fatty acids, by-products of a chemical process known as hydrogenation. Foods high in these harmful fats include animal products, cooking oils, margarine, shortening and foods that contain these ingredients. Trans fatty acids raise bad cholesterol levels, lower good cholesterol levels and increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
Oils are part of a well-balanced diet, but not all oils are healthy. Oils high in polyunsaturated fatty acids contribute to good health because they are high in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. These include hemp, flax, grape seed, safflower, sunflower, soybean, cottonseed and sesame oils.
Poppy Carpenter graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. In addition to teaching journalism to junior high students, she also covers health and fitness for "PUSH Monthly" and Angie's List.