Spring 2018 On the Shelf
May 02, 2018 By Alyssa Schwartz

If you are not a dietitian, getting the facts about dietary fats can feel like a challenge. For years, fat was blamed for obesity and heart disease; more recently, certain fats have actually been recommended as the key to weight loss, healthier cholesterol levels, and better health.

There is a good chance the hype has you feeling confused about whether fat is your friend or your foe. But in order to understand how fat fits into a healthy eating plan, it is important to first understand what it is, and what role it plays in your body.

Like protein and carbohydrates, fat is one of the essential nutrients the human body requires in order to function. Fats provide the body with energy, help it to absorb certain vitamins, and are needed to perform other important functions. Each gram of fat contains nine calories; current Diabetes Canada guidelines recommend that 20 to 35 per cent of calories consumed each day come from total fat.

But not all dietary fats are the same, due to differences in their chemical structure. “There are several different types of fats found in food,” says Stephanie Boutette, a registered dietitian and education coordinator with Diabetes Canada. “Unsaturated fats are known as ‘good’ or healthy fats. They help lower your levels of low-density lipoprotein [LDL], or ‘bad’ cholesterol, that can increase your risk of heart disease.” There are two types of unsaturated fats: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.

On the other hand, saturated fats (typically found in butter, meats, and other animal products) and trans fats (found in processed foods) are viewed as less healthy options because they can raise LDL-cholesterol levels.

But how can the average shopper or home cook tell which foods contain healthy fats? The Nutrition Facts table on packaged foods is a great place to start: It lists total fat as well as saturated and trans fats. But since monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are not listed on their own, you have to do some math to determine the healthy fat content. How? By subtracting the saturated and trans fats from the total fat. For example, if a serving of crackers has five grams of fat, including one gram of saturated fat and zero trans fats, there would be four grams of unsaturated fats. Another rule of thumb? Boutette says the ‘good’ unsaturated fats tend to be liquid at room temperature (think olive, canola, nut, and avocado oils), while the ‘bad’ saturated fats tend to be solid (think butter and animal fat).

While some saturated fats such as coconut oil, which have a different chemical structure, are now being promoted as healthy, Boutette says there is not yet enough research to recommend them. “But at the end of the day,” she says, “it’s all about varying the types of fats you use. Each type of fat has a different profile. If you like coconut oil, then have some, and maybe use an oil like canola in your next meal.”

Five top sources of healthy fats

● Canola oil

● Olive oil

● Avocados

● Nuts, including walnuts and almonds

● Salmon and other fatty fish

Did you know?

Reading the nutrition facts on food labels can help you make healthier choices. To learn more, visit “Understanding the Nutrition Label” now.

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