It is likely that if you are reading this post, you are well-versed in the variety of nutrition messages that are thrown at us on a daily basis: one of them being that fat is bad for you. Or fat is good for you. Or fat is really bad for you. Or you can eat as much fat as you want.

Let’s backtrack to the 1960’s, when the fat-free craze began. Dietary fat and cholesterol were considered to be the devil. We were urged to remove fat from our diets and switch to low-fat or fat-free foods. Unfortunately, this didn’t really help for a mixture of reasons. For instance, we tended to cut back on all fats (including the healthier ones), and we increased our sugar consumption while cutting back on fats.

It turns out fat isn’t necessarily the bad guy. Our body needs fat from food as a source of energy, to absorb certain vitamins and minerals, to build cell membranes, to assist in blood clotting and muscle movement, as well.

Another consideration is that there are different types of fats. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats tend to be better for you (found in foods like fatty fish, nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil). Trans fats tend to be less good for you, while saturated fat and cholesterol are somewhere in between.

Fat: The Good, The Bad, and The In-Between

Trans Fats: These fats turns healthy oils into solids via a process called hydrogenation. Essentially, the healthy fats become not-so-healthy saturated fats. You may notice these on a food label as “partially hydrogenated oil.” These kinds of fats can increase the amount of harmful LDL cholesterol in the blood and reduce the amount of beneficial HDL cholesterol. Trans fats can also create inflammation, which is linked to many chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. Trans fats have no safe level of consumption and have no known health benefits.

Bottom Line: Avoid trans fats.

Saturated Fats: These fats are solid at room temperature (think butter, lard, hard cheese). The word “saturated” refers to the number of hydrogen atoms that surround each carbon atom, that is – the carbon atom is saturated with hydrogen atoms. There has been a lot of heated debate about whether or not saturated fat is bad for you. Saturated fat has been known to raise LDL cholesterol, and as a result, a lot of nutrition and health experts recommend limiting saturated fat to less than 10% of calories a day.

However, recent research including a meta-analysis of 21 studies reported that there is not enough evidence to conclude that saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease. On the other hand, replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat may reduce the risk of heart disease.

Other major studies made more specific recommendations, noting that replacing saturated fat with highly-processed carbohydrates could result in more harm, and we’re better off replacing them with polyunsaturated fats or high-fibre carbohydrates.

Studies also found that high levels of cholesterol are a poor marker of heart disease and that the association between cholesterol and heart disease is more complex that we thought. For example, in the elderly population, cholesterol has been shown to be protective. Similarly, there are subtypes of LDL cholesterol (the “bad cholesterol”), and the smaller and denser the size, the more riskier it becomes in terms of heart disease.

Bottom Line: Saturated fat may not be as evil as initially thought, and is more of a “neutral” type of fat.

Moving onto a more positive note: The “good” fats…

Monounsaturated Fats: Foods like olive oils, canola oils, avocados and most nuts will give you plenty of monounsaturated fat. These fats are liquid at room temperature. Studies have shown us that populations that eat diets rich in olive oil, or a “Mediterranean diet” have a smaller risk of heart disease.

Polyunsaturated Fats: These types of fats are essential fats, including sunflower oil, safflower oil and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids from fatty fish and seeds. Your body needs these fats for normal body functions like building cell membranes, covering nerves, blood clotting and muscle movement. When replacing highly refined carbohydrates, these fats help to reduce triglycerides and LDL cholesterol.

Bottom line: Include plenty of fatty fish, nuts and seeds, olive oil and avocado in your diet.

So what does all of this information tell us?

The consumption of fat in terms of how much to eat and what kind of fat to eat is a complex topic and really depends on the person and what else is being consumed in the diet. When it comes to saturated fat, there is no need to completely avoid it – however, there is also no need to consume unlimited amounts of it. Finally, as we know at DayTwo, nutrition recommendations need to be personal; the way your body responds to the food you eat is different from the person sitting next to you.

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