Just what is a bad fat?



Sorting out the fats. Good fats, bad fats – the proper balance is key.

The nutrition story around fats used to be pretty simple: saturated fats were the bad guys, and polyunsaturated fats were the good guys. But the story has gotten a bit more complicated; now we’re talking about getting the right balance of fats – two kinds of polyunsaturated fats in particular, omega-3 and omega-6.

First, a little terminology. The terms ‘omega-3’ and ‘omega-6’ refer to the chemical structure of the fatty acid, and there are several omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids that we eat, not just one. And it’s not that either of these groups of fats is bad – in fact, within each group there are ‘essential’ fatty acids – ones we need to eat, because our bodies can’t make them. In small amounts – and in the right balance – essential fatty acids serve to support growth, vision and brain function.

The problem is that the balance in our diet is way off – our food supply is overloaded with the omega-6 fats, and we don’t get enough omega-3. And when the balance is off, our health may suffer.

It wasn’t always this way – the diet our ancient ancestors ate had just the right balance of fatty acids from all the plant foods they ate – like vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. While they don’t seem fatty, all plant foods contain traces of both essential fatty acids, and it’s been estimated that this hunter-gatherer diet contained roughly the same amounts of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids – or a balance of about one-to-one.

But in the last 150 years or so, our food supply has changed so much, that we now eat about 15 times more omega-6 fats than omega-3s, which throws the ideal balance way off. One of the biggest contributors to this imbalance is the huge amount of grain-based oils we eat – particularly corn oil, which is one of the richest sources of omega-6 fats. We’re overloaded with omega-6 which is in everything from fried foods, baked goods, chips, salad dressings and sweets, and at the same time, we’re not eating nearly enough omega-3s – particularly from fish – but also from foods like vegetables and nuts, too.

Simply reducing the total amount of fat you eat will help to shift the balance, since most of the fatty foods we eat are the primary sources of omega-6 in the diet. Then, try to eat more fish if you can. If you don’t cook it often, start with canned tuna or salmon, which can be used in a lot of dishes in place of poultry – like casseroles and pasta. If you can’t get fish on the menu a few times a week, you might want to consider a fish oil supplement.

Veggies and fruits naturally have the right balance of fatty acids, so do your best to include some at every meal. Fruits have fat mostly in their seeds, so those with edible seeds – like berries and kiwi – are great sources of these healthy fats. Think about nuts and seeds for snacks, too. They’re a great substitute for chips and crackers that can be full of the less healthy omega-6s.

Written by Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD.

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