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Ask a Dietitian: The Difference Between Fats

by Courtney Cheatham, Dietetic Intern, University of Oklahoma

Q: I get confused when I see the different types of fats on the nutrition facts label. What are the differences between these fats and which ones are the best for my health?

A: It is very easy to be confused with the different fats that we see on labels or hear about in the news. There are four types of fats that we typically see on the food labels: monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, saturated fats, and trans fats.

Fats are not nutrients that we should be afraid of. They are an essential nutrient that the body needs which also provides it with energy. Fat provides 9 calories/1 gram of fat. The key to fat is choosing the types that are healthier for your body.

Monounsaturated fats are a type of fat that decreases total cholesterol and LDL or bad cholesterol. These are a healthier fat and can be found in avocados, nuts, olives, and some oils such as canola, olive and peanut oils.

Polyunsaturated fats include omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids which are essential fats. Like monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats decrease total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. These fats can be found in salmon, herring, nuts, flaxseed, and corn oils. Both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats help to decrease triglycerides, which are fat molecules that flow in the blood stream. These fats help to decrease the risk of heart disease. When possible, choose your fat intake from these types.

Saturated fats are fats that are found in foods made from animal products like meat and dairy products. It is important to monitor the consumption of these fats because they can negatively impact triglycerides and total cholesterol. If these fats are eaten in excess, they can increase the risk of heart disease. Be sure to consume only about 10 percent of total calories as saturated fat.

Trans fats are a form of unsaturated fat that has been chemically altered. Because of this, the body does not recognize this type of fat. Trans fats increase total cholesterol & LDL cholesterol, and lowers HDL cholesterol which is the good cholesterol. Like saturated fats, trans fats increase the risk of heart disease. More food manufacturers and restaurants have taken out this type of fat from their food products. However, it is still important to check the ingredient list on food labels. Manufacturers can still put in 0-0.49 grams of trans fats and say that there are 0 grams in the food. Be sure to look for the ingredient “partially hydrogenated oils” because these tell you whether or not trans fats appear in our food.

For nutritional counseling, Norman Regional Health System offers the guidance of registered dietitians. Those interested can schedule an appointment for an assessment with a referral from their family physician.

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