Award-Winning Bariatric Physician Dr. Jan McBarron examines monosaturated and polyunsaturated fats versus trans and saturated fats, and how-to best position them in your diet
Before examining the various ways to keep a healthy selection of fats in your diet, it’s worthwhile — and probably necessary — to take a step back to explain the difference between healthy fats and unhealthy fats; especially since for many people, all fat is perceived as the enemy.
First, the Good
Healthy fats — which are commonly referred to as good fats — refer to monosaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, respectively.
Monosaturated fats are fat molecules that have a single unsaturated carbon bond. Like all fats (including the bad kind that we’ll look at in a moment), monosaturated fats contain nine calories per gram. However, what makes monosaturated fats a relatively healthy choice is their power to help lower LDL cholesterol, which reduces the risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. In addition, monosaturated fats provide essential nutrients that help build and support cells.
Polyunsaturated fats are fat molecules that have more than one unsaturated carbon bond. One kind of polyunsaturated fat is comprised primarily of omega-3 fatty acids, which studies have shown can be highly beneficial for heart health. Like monosaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats can also reduce LDL cholesterol levels.
Jan McBarron states that for many it is a challenge to accept that some types of fats, when consumed in moderation, can be healthy instead of harmful. Society has spent many years, or even decades, thinking that fat is the worst thing they can eat, resulting in the meticulous hunting of grocery store shelves for products labeled fat-free. However, the truth is that monosaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are allies instead of enemies and should be consumed as part of a healthy diet.
Now, the Bad
Speaking of enemies: there are indeed some fatty foes to watch out for on the dietary landscape, and that is where trans fats and saturated fats come into the picture.
Trans fats (which are technically called trans fatty acids) get their name from the fact that the molecules contain a trans double bond between carbon atoms. Trans fats are the worst of both worlds: they raise LDL cholesterol, and simultaneously lower HDL cholesterol (which is the good kind of cholesterol that, among other benefits, helps keep blood vessels clear and functioning normally). The American Heart Association also warns that increasing one’s consumption of trans fats also increases the risk of developing stroke, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Artificial trans fats — known as partially hydrogenated oil — are found in many common food items, including fried foods, creamer, margarine, baked goods, and ready-made frosting.
Saturated fats contain a large proportion of fatty acid molecules without a double bond. While not nearly as unhealthy as trans fats, saturated fats can potentially raise LDL cholesterol. They are found in animal-based foods such as butter, lard, cream, cheese, and red meat.
For decades, the prevailing attitude in the medical community was that saturated fats were a leading cause of health disease. However, Jan McBarron points out that in recent years this view has come under scrutiny, and many experts now feel that saturated fats may not be as detrimental as once believed. This is especially the case when compared to trans fats, which are universally viewed as harmful. It remains important and wise to monitor intake of saturated fats and keep things in control. For many people, this comes in the form of reducing or eliminating red meat from their diet.
Foods that Deliver Healthy Fats
Now that the difference between good fats and bad fats have been clarified, let’s look at a list of foods that deliver a healthy, nutritious helping of the former. According to Dr. Jan McBarron, these selections include (but are not limited to):
- Monosaturated fats: avocados, olives, olive oil, canola oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, almonds, pecans, peanuts, hazelnuts, and Brazil nuts.
- Polyunsaturated fats: ground flaxseed, walnuts, salmon, albacore tuna, trout, chia seeds, and corn oil.
Bonus: Dark Chocolate
Dr. Jan McBarron shares, the fats in dark chocolate are mostly monosaturated and saturated, with a minimal amount of polyunsaturated fats. Plus, dark chocolate may offer other health benefits, including it contains iron, copper and magnesium, is a powerful source of antioxidants, and bioactive compounds which improve blow flow to the skin and reduce sun damage. However, the key thing to remember is to eat dark chocolate in moderation meaning in small portions, infrequently. A 100-gram serving with no added sugar packs 546 calories, and with sugar which enhances the taste, the calorie count typically climbs to around 650 or higher. Having a piece now and then is fine but having a bar daily is not.