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The Truth About Fats

Not all fats are equal. Learn which ones actually boost your health!
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

For years, fat has been the bogeyman of bad health. Increasingly, however, research is showing that not all fats are equal. Some oils and fatty foods contain chemicals called essential fatty acids, which our bodies need for good health. How do you know the difference between good fats and bad fats? Read on!

"We've had such emphasis on eating low-fat foods," says Patricia Kendall, PhD, RD, a professor at the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Office. "But all these new studies on oils and high-fat foods like nuts and cold-water fish show we've been ignoring how much we need certain fats."

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The two essential fatty acids most important to good health are omega-3 and omega-6. But we need these in the right balance in order to protect our hearts, joints, pancreas, mood stability, and skin.

Unfortunately, we eat way too much omega-6, which is found in the corn oil and vegetable oils used in so much American food. Too much omega 6 can raise your blood pressure, lead to blood clots that can cause heart attack and stroke, and cause your body to retain water.

We don't eat nearly enough omega-3, which can reduce our risk for heart disease and cancer. Omega-3 is found in fish and fish oil, all green leafy vegetables, flax seed, hemp, and walnuts.

How Much Fat Do You Really Need?

Most experts recommend that we get 30% of our calories from fat, although we can survive fine on as little as 20%, even 10%. If you're like most of us, you're getting plenty of fat - most Americans consume about 40% of their calories from fats in meat, butter, cheese, baked goods, etc.

The better question to ask is, "Are you getting the enough of the right fats?" says Ruth Kava, PhD, RD, of the American Council of Science and Health. "Most of us get too much fat, and too much unhealthy fat," she says.

Making the Switch

To make the switch to heart-healthy fats, start by avoiding the truly unhealthy fats - trans fatty acids. These trans fats come from vegetable oils that were chemically modified so they are solid like butter. Because these oils don't spoil as quickly as butter, they are used in most packaged cookies, chips, crackers and other baked goods sold in the supermarket, as well as in margarines.

The solidifying process - called hydrogenation - extends the shelf life of food, but it also turns polyunsaturated oils into a kind of man-made cholesterol. Trans fats can increase your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol, and may increase your risk of heart disease. What's more, these man-made fats are taken up by the body much easier than are omega-3s. So trans fatty acids not only harm your health, they also block the absorption of healthy fats.

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