One of the realities of our bodies is that fats are necessary. Our bodies need them to survive. But, like all things, moderation is important. It is also important to understand the difference between different types of fats. The American Heart Association puts fats into two main categories: “bad” fats and “better” fats.
The key to better health is to understand the differences between the different fats, and try to limit the “bad” fats while incorporating the “better” fats into your diet — using moderation, of course!
“Bad” Fats: Saturated Fats and Trans Fats
The American Heart Association classifies saturated fats and trans fats as “bad” fats. These are fats that increase LDL cholesterol. This is the “bad” cholesterol that causes heart disease and other health problems as it reaches certain levels. For the past five years, I have been working to lower my own LDL cholesterol. High cholesterol runs in my family, and it has been a work of supreme effort to change my diet and exercise habits to get my LDL cholesterol down to normal range. But I have done it — and without the help of medication.
Saturated fats and trans fats are in a lot of different foods that we often think of as tasty. Ice cream, creamy soups, beef and dairy foods have saturated fats. Trans fats are found in fried foods and in a lot of processed baked goods from the store. Fries, croissants, glazed donuts, chicken fingers and similar foods contain trans fats. The American Heart Association recommends that you limit saturated fats to 7% of your total calories each day, and trans fats to 1% of your total calories (based on a 2,000 calorie diet). This doesn’t mean that you can’t have some of your favorites — it just means you should be careful.
“Better” Fats: Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated
Monunsaturated fats can actually help you lower your risk for heart disease — as long as you don’t go overboard. Polyunsaturated fat is meant to help lower LDL cholesterol, and you find omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in many polyunsaturated fats, helping with brain function and healthy cell development. Some good sources of monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats (they’re usually in the same foods) include fatty fish like salmon, trout and tuna, nuts, avocados, vegetable, canola and olive oils, and sunflower seeds.
The American Heart Association recommends that you get no more than 30% of your daily calories from fats. If you subtract the 8% for saturated and trans fats, that means that no more than about 22% of your daily calories should be from unsaturated fats.
Adjusting Your Diet
Even though I have been eating healthier, it doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy some of the treats that contain saturated (and trans!) fats. Indeed, I still like a good hamburger and fries as much as the next person, but I only indulge occasionally. Instead, I have tried to change my diet slowly. I started by replacing one red meat entree each week with something else, until now my family usually only eats red meat once a week (twice a week during summer grilling season).
We’ve also made an effort to shift from processed foods with trans fats to more home-made foods, including meals and baked treats. Cooking at home, and using fresh ingredients has been a big help to the overall health of our family.