Good vs. Bad Fats and the Effects of Both
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Salmon good fats

Dietary fat has been getting much attention over the past decade and continues to be a hot topic. If you’re like me as an RD, your clients are asking you several ‘fat’ questions: “What kinds of fat should I eat?” “What are good fats, bad fats, and the differences between the two?” “How do good fats and bad fats affect my body differently?”

Research suggests that when it comes to dietary fat, individuals should focus on eating healthy fats and avoiding unhealthy fats. ‘Good fats,’ such as monounsaturated fats (omega-9) and polyunsaturated fats (omega-3 and omega-6), have been shown to reduce the risk factors of cardiovascular disease, improve vitamin absorption, promote cell development and maintain a healthy immune system. ‘Bad fats,’ such as trans fats and saturated fats, have been shown to increase risk factors for cardiovascular disease and diabetes; plus, they can increase inflammation in the body.

Let’s explore the good fats. Research shows that eating foods and oils (such as canola oil) rich in monounsaturated fats improves blood cholesterol levels, which can decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease. An interesting study demonstrates that a diet high in monounsaturated fats may raise the healthy HDL cholesterol without raising unhealthy LDL cholesterol. My clients also often ask me about omega-3 polyunsaturated fats. The two main types of omega-3 fats are marine (fatty fish, algal) and plant (flaxseed, walnuts). Numerous studies support that a food pattern rich in marine-based omega-3 fats can decrease the risk of coronary heart disease; these good fats may also protect against irregular heartbeats and help lower blood pressure levels. Other positive research shows that a diet high in plant omega-3 fats may help decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes.

Now, let’s move on to the bad fats. Most trans fats are made during food processing through partial hydrogenation. This creates fats that are called synthetic trans fats; they are easy to cook with and provide long shelf lives. Some trans fats occur naturally in foods, such as meat and milk, but they are different than synthetic trans fat. Research studies show that synthetic trans fat can increase LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol and lower HDL ‘good’ cholesterol, which can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. The other bad fat on my clients’ radar screen is saturated fat. Saturated fats are most commonly found in animal food sources and tropical oils, such as palm and coconut. Food patterns with large amounts of saturated fat can raise total blood cholesterol levels and the LDL cholesterol levels. Similar diets may increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.

How can RDs translate this science into user-friendly information to answer those fat questions for our clientele? What I find helpful is to use direct, client-centered language and open-ended questions. We should listen to the client as she/he is telling us the reasons why she/he has not undertaken positive health behaviour changes including eating more ‘good fats’ and less ‘bad fats.’ Based on this information, I use simple, friendly terms that relate specifically to the client to explain the nutritional science. As health professionals, we can have collaborative conversations; engage in joint goal setting; offer session summaries; provide educational and community resources, meal plans, and recipes; suggest time management tips; and encourage the client to believe that she or he has the ability to change.