For years fat has been blamed for causing weight gain and increasing rates of obesity and cardiovascular disease across the globe. However, certain types of fat have been found to increase weight loss, lower cholesterol levels, and act as an important nutrient in a well-rounded diet. These ‘healthy fats’ – also known as unsaturated fats – can be found in olive and canola oils, fatty fish, and nuts. In this article we’ll discuss how fat fits into a healthy eating routine, as well as how to use a nutrition label to determine which fats you should limit, and which you should include in your day-to-day eating plan.
Unsaturated vs. Saturated Fats
Not all types of fat are created equal. Unsaturated fats are known as the ‘healthy’ type of fat, as they lower levels of LDL-cholesterol, helping to reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke. Unsaturated fats can appear in your favourite foods as either monounsaturated or polyunsaturated, both of which will result in the benefits highlighted above.
Sources of unsaturated fats include:
- Nuts and seeds
- Fatty fish
- Vegetable oils including:
- Olive oil
- Canola oil
- Sesame oil
A helpful approach to follow is that unsaturated fats are often liquid at room temperature.
Saturated fats on the other hand, tend to increase levels of LDL-cholesterol, potentially increasing your risk of heart disease and stroke. Saturated fats are usually found in butter, animal meats, and processed foods, and should be limited in a healthy eating plan.
Sources of saturated fats include:
- Dairy products such as butter and cheese
- Beef, pork, lamb, and chicken
- Coconut oil
- Lard and shortening
A helpful approach to follow is that saturated fats are often solid at room temperature.
Trans fats are another type of fat that can have a detrimental effect on cardiovascular health. Trans fats can be found in some animal-based foods, but a large majority are formed during food processing. Foods such as hydrogenated margarines, vegetable shortenings, and commercially processed cakes, cookies, and baked goods are common sources of trans fats that should be limited in a healthy eating plan. Trans fats can also appear on an ingredient list as ‘partially hydrogenated oils’, which are often added to processed food products to increase shelf life.
Ideally, trans and saturated fat intake should be limited to 20 grams per day, with as low of an intake of trans fats as possible.
So Why Are These Fats so Problematic?
Consuming foods with trans fat, or too much saturated fats, can increase your levels of LDL-cholesterol and can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. These fats can also lower the amount of healthy cholesterol (also known as HDL-cholesterol) in your bloodstream. When at the grocery store, try to select lower fat dairy products, choose lean cuts of meat, and limit processed foods as much as possible.
Understanding Fat on the Label
The first thing to look out for on a nutrition label is the percent daily value (or % Daily Value) of fat. This value tells us how much fat is in our product and how that amount contributes to our daily fat intake from all sources. For example, in our nutrition label below we can see that there is 15% daily value of saturated fat in 1 cup of our product. This means that 1 cup of our product contains 15% of the amount of saturated fat recommended for the entire day. If we were to eat 2 cups of this product, we would have just eaten 30% of our daily recommended amount of saturated fat, and so on. Understanding how this daily value column works can help give you an idea of how much fat you are consuming, and potentially exceeding per day.
A helpful guide to follow on a nutrition label is 5% Daily Value or less of a nutrient is considered a small amount, while 15% Daily Value or more is considered a high amount. Looking at our nutrition label, we can see that our product contains a high amount of saturated fat, and we should try to limit our consumption when possible. When grocery shopping for your favourite foods, the government of Canada recommends that you choose options that are as low in both saturated and trans fats as possible.
In our nutrition label we can also see that fat is split up into three different categories: Total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat. Food manufacturers in Canada are not required to include the amount of unsaturated fats in a food product, however, that amount can be determined by subtracting the amount of saturated and trans fats from the total amount of fat (In this case, 8 grams of total fat – 3 grams of saturated fat = 5 grams of unsaturated fat).
- Do most of your grocery shopping around the perimeter of the store: Most saturated and trans fats are found in processed and packaged foods that are commonly found in the middle aisles of a grocery store. By sticking to the perimeter of the store you can focus your grocery shopping on fresh foods, and foods that are lower in saturated and trans fats.
- Eat salmon (or other fatty fish) once or twice a week: Salmon and fatty fish such as sardines are great sources of unsaturated fats. These fats lower levels of LDL-cholesterol, which can decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Make half of your plate veggies: The other half of your plate could consist of a lean (or plant!) protein, and a whole grain rice or pasta.
- Trim the fat off meat: Removing the skin from meats such as chicken is also a great way of lowering your saturated fat intake.
- Make your own salad dressings: Many store-bought salad dressings contain excess saturated and trans fats. Making your own oil and vinegar dressing with an unsaturated fat (such as olive oil) is easy and can be a great way to limit your intake of saturated and trans fats.
Following these tips and limiting foods that are high in these fats or replacing them with unsaturated fats can be a great way to lower levels of LDL-cholesterol and maintain a healthy eating routine. The most important thing to remember when making changes to your diet is to start slowly! Try incorporating one of the above tips a week at a time so that you give yourself time to adjust to a new routine. The best healthy eating plan is always one that you can stick with!
Health Canada. “Fats.” Government of Canada, 22 Jan. 2019, www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/nutrients/fats.html.
Diabetes Canada. “Getting the Skinny on Healthy Fats.” Diabetes Canada, 26 Jan. 2021, www.diabetes.ca/about-diabetes/stories/getting-the-skinny-on-healthy-fats.