For years people were taught that fatty foods were bad and fat should be avoided. The last few decades have debunked this theory and replaced it with a more complex idea: fats are both good and bad, and some are essential. Saturated fats are found in red meats and are known to raise blood cholesterol levels if consumed too frequently. Trans fat is also considered a “bad” fat and is rarely found naturally occurring in plant or animal products.
The “good” fats are unsaturated, which are typically found in plants and seafood and are liquid at room temperature. Unsaturated fats are known to promote good cholesterol and help prevent heart disease.
Where do Omega-3 fatty acids fit into this equation and why are they stressed as some of the best fats available for human consumption?
As we dive into the good unsaturated fats we discover that this category is divided even further into monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. The difference here is where we can see the real value of Omega-3s and Omega-6s and understand why they are so highly recommended by dieticians.
On a chemical level, monounsaturated fats have one unsaturated carbon bond in the molecule. The most common sources of monounsaturated fats is in plant-based oils such as olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, and sesame oil. You can also find monounsaturated fats in avocados, peanut butter, and most nuts and seeds. These fats are preferred to saturated fat as they can help reduce the bad cholesterol levels in your blood.
All fats, good or bad, have the same number of calories, but it you are looking for a positive effect on your health, the American Heart Association recommends the majority of your fats be unsaturated.
Ok, so monounsaturated fats are good for me and combat bad cholesterol in my blood, what makes polyunsaturated even better? Chemically the only difference is at least one more unsaturated carbon bond within the molecule. As long as a molecule has at least two unsaturated carbon bonds, it is considered polyunsaturated.
Similar to monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats combat bad cholesterol in your body and help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. One key difference is the availability of the essential fats in polyunsaturated fats. Most polyunsaturated fats contain Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids that your body cannot naturally produce. These essential fatty acids are important for many functions in your body such as brain, eye, heart, and autoimmune health. Studies have also been conducted to show the connection between Omega-3 fatty acids and depression, mental disorders, and age-related mental decline.
Since these essential fatty acids cannot be produced naturally by our body, we must include them in our diet. The most common sources are fish, sunflower, chia, flax, and hemp hearts. Seafood based sources and plant based sources have different types of Omega-3s and Omega-6s (two are found in fish and the third in plants). The ideal diet would include both sources to provide all three of these essential fatty acids.
Good fats, bad fats, essential fats, what does it all mean in the end? The American Heart Association suggests the majority of the fats you consume should be monounsaturated or polyunsaturated – ie “good fats.” Of these two options, polyunsaturated fats are the only source of the essential fatty acids that your body does not produce. While it would be nice to solely consume polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats are more common, cheaper, and tend to have a longer shelf life than polyunsaturated fats. A healthy diet would include both and stay away from saturated and trans fats as much as possible.