As human scientific understanding has improved over the past century, so has our understanding of fats and how they affect our health. Fats are important factors where heart disease, hormonal balance, organ function, and even mental health are concerned. Today, our understanding of fats breaks down into two basic categories: “healthy” fats and “unhealthy” fats. With each new discovery our understanding changes and it seems like every few years some aspect of fat previously believed to be unhealthy becomes healthy and vice-versa. So here’s a run-down of healthy fats and their benefits, based on our current understanding.
9) What are healthy fats?
To understand the benefits, we need to first understand which fats are good and which are bad. Fat molecules are chains of carbon atoms with hydrogen and oxygen atoms bonded to them. Healthier fats tend to have less hydrogen bonds, while fats with more hydrogen bonds are the ones you have to watch out for. Saturated fats contain the maximum amount of hydrogen bonds possible on their carbon chains. Trans fats have lots of hydrogen bonds too, usually artificially created by the hydrogenation process that goes into making many snack foods, although some trans fats occur naturally in dairy and red meat. Unsaturated fats come in two varieties – polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. This means that the carbon chain has either one (mono) or many (poly) unsaturated chemical bonds. Healthy unsaturated fats are found in swimming fish, nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils that are liquid at room temperature. Unhealthy fats are found in shellfish, red meat, and vegetable oils that are solid at room temperature. Now that you know the difference, let’s talk about the benefits of healthy fats!
8) Healthy fats regulate your metabolism
To get energy, your cells need to process nutrients. Each of your cells is surrounded by a membrane that is comprised of lipids. When these lipids are omega-3s (which are a polyunsaturated fat) it causes the cell to be more sensitive to insulin, the hormone that facilitates metabolic activity. Healthy fats also play a role in regulating and balancing other hormones including thyroxin, which is vital for proper metabolic function.
7) Control cholesterol
Healthy unsaturated fats lower total cholesterol overall and increase levels of HDL cholesterol, also known as the “good” cholesterol. Saturated and trans fats have the opposite effect. They heighten overall cholesterol and increase levels of LDL or “bad” cholesterol. It is important to note that trans fat is technically unsaturated, but it is the exception rather than the rule. Most unsaturated fats fall into the “healthy” category.
6) They’re good for your bones
A diet with adequate calcium will ensure strong bones for life, but getting lots of calcium won’t make a difference if your bones can’t absorb it. Vitamin D is the catalyst that allows your bones to absorb calcium but vitamin D is also a fat soluble molecule, which means that unless there is some fat present during the digestion process the vitamin D won’t dissolve to the point where it can be absorbed into the blood stream. By including healthy fats in your diet you ensure that your vitamin D is being absorbed which in turn ensures that your calcium is getting into your bones. It’s amazing how interconnected all the systems of nutrition are.
5) They help build muscle
You may think that protein is the most important factor for building muscles since that’s what they’re made of, but fats play an important role too. Since healthy fats regulate the body’s hormonal balance, they also regulate human growth hormone. If you work out, your muscles grow during recovery periods. It is during this time that the growth hormone does its thing. So if bulking up is your thing remember to pound those healthy fats, especially on rest days.
4) They promote good brain health
The brain is the fattiest organ in the body. It’s practically all fat and water. That’s why it is very important to get enough fat in your diet to keep your brain structurally and functionally sound. A healthy brain means better cognitive function, mental, and emotional health. You may have heard some buzz about DHA lately. DHA stands for docosahexaenoic acid and it’s the long chain omega-3 that makes up most of your brain. Omega-3s are essential because they are fatty acids that our bodies can’t make on their own from other components. General omega-3s occur in lots of food including many plant sources, but long chain DHA is only present in fish and the algae they eat. Your body can make long chain omega-3s from short chain omega-3s so it is not absolutely necessary to eat fish, but vegetarians should be sure to get extra omega-3 plant sources in their diets like seeds, nuts, and avocados to ensure there is enough short chain O-3s to make DHA. DHA is also available in supplements. Most of these are made from fish oil but algae-based supplements are also available.
3) Fat is a beauty booster
That’s not something you often hear in a skinny-obsessed society, but it’s true. Fats play an important role in balancing skin chemistry. They also keep cells hydrated by allowing them to hold on to moisture longer, which is especially important in very dry environments. Healthy fats keep hair shiny and help to balance the amount of oil secreted by your scalp. This makes sense when you consider that most skin and hair treatments and moisturizers claim to contain “nourishing oils”. There may be some benefit to rubbing these oils on the surface of your body, but ingesting good fats will absolutely ensure that they are absorbed by your cells. Don’t eat your moisturizer though!
2) They fight inflammation
Inflammation is usually caused by an autoimmune response or arthritis. Omega-3s have been found to fight inflammation in arthritis cases and to ease the effects of it in autoimmune cases. The science is still out on why but it may have something to do with arachidonic acid.
1) Choosing healthy fats over unhealthy fats can help prevent cancer
Good fats can interact safely with free radicals, the atoms responsible for creating the chain reactions which lead to rapid growth of cancer cells. By interacting with the free radicals, healthy fats break the chain and stop the cancer cells from growing. This is what is meant when foods are said to be antioxidants. Conversely, unhealthy fats encourage the continuation of free radical chain reactions.
As you can see, there are plenty of great health benefits to unsaturated fats, but the best reason of all has nothing to do with health –They’re delicious! Guacamole, hummus, sushi, and all kinds of other treats are packed with good fats and great flavour, so it’s easy to reap the health benefits.