Fats And Oils Are Only Unhealthy When You Choose Wrong


Fats and oils are an important part of any diet and are effective in promoting safe and healthy weight loss. Generally fats and oils are divided into two groups, saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fats come from animal products and tend to be solids at room temperature when in an unprocessed state. Unsaturated fats come from plants and are typically liquid at room temperature. Some products can be a combination of saturated and unsaturated fats and can be used in a variety of different types of food processing including cooking, baking or as spreads.

Historically common dieting wisdom has embraced the belief that eating lower quantities of all types of fats is essential in weight loss and weight maintenance programs. However, researchers have demonstrated that the amount of fat is not the key factor in weight loss; it is the specific type of fat as opposed to actual amount of fat. A study that followed 101 overweight men and women found that those that ate moderate healthy fat levels in the diet following the Mediterranean Diet had increased weight loss and better adherence to the diet. In fact only 20% of the low fat diet group was actually using the diet after 18 months compared to 54% of the test subjects in the moderate fat intake group. 1

Saturated Fats

Saturated fats can contribute to a variety of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, heart attack, stroke and some digestive disorders and cancers. They are found naturally in fatty cuts of meat, butter, cream, whole milk, cheese and any products made with these ingredients. They are often used to add flavor and palatability to foods as opposed to as a food source on their own.

Coconut oil and palm oil are also considered to be saturated fats, even though they are plant based oils. This is because they act the same way in the human body and actually raise the blood cholesterol levels in people that consume them on a regular basis. Unfortunately these oils as well as the saturated fats listed above are very commonly found in processes and pre-packaged foods as well as in restaurant and fast food items.

Unsaturated Fats

Good sources of unsaturated fats, the healthy fat choices, can be one of two different types. These include the monounsaturated fats and the polyunsaturated fats. Both work to help lower the bad LDL cholesterol in the blood while maintaining the good HDL cholesterol levels. Monounsaturated fats include olive oils, canola oil, peanut oil and spreads that contain these ingredients without any saturated fats. Additionally some foods such as avocados, hazelnuts, almonds, cashews and peanuts contain monounsaturated fats. Nuts are also high in caloric content and need to be carefully portion controlled in the diet so are not considered a major source of monounsaturated fats.

Recent research has been clear on the value of a simple substitute of unsaturated fats, typically monounsaturated fats, for saturated fats. Short term quick weight loss is noted in initial studies with minimal change in calorie intake and no change in energy expenditure. 2

Food For Thought

Many supporters of lifestyle changing diets, most particularly the well researched Mediterranean Diet, indicate that eating the healthy fats and oils goes beyond just healthy weight loss. This particular diet, along with many other similar diets and lifestyle changing eating guidelines advocates the use of olive oil, particularly extra virgin or virgin olive oil, as the alternative for all saturated fats in the diet.3 There is no restriction on the amount of olive oil that can be consumed and it is used as a dipping liquid for whole grain breads, drizzled on whole wheat pastas and vegetable dishes and even used in cooking.

Olive oil has been researched in several different ways as it contributes to overall health.  It is high in tocopherols and phenols which are powerful antioxidants. These studies show that there is a lower incidence of coronary heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancers in countries where high levels of monounsaturated fats in the form of virgin or extra virgin olive oils are consumed in lieu of saturated fats.

While adding monounsaturated and polyunsaturated oils to the diet is important, it is also essential for health reasons to avoid trans fats. Trans fats, more correctly known as trans fatty acids, are created through the hydrogenation of vegetable oils. On ingredient lists on packaging they are listed as partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated oils. Like saturated fats they raise the bad cholesterol levels but in addition they can actually reduce the levels of good cholesterol in the body, resulting in a double negative health impact. 4

Fats and oils are essential in providing satisfying, appetizing and healthy foods. Thinking less about limiting fats or avoiding all fats and instead focusing in on adding reasonable and moderate amounts of good fats and oils is more beneficial for short and long term weight loss. Becoming fat-phobic does not promote weight loss and it may even limit the ability for the dieter to stay on the diet without cheating, reverting back to bad eating habits or simply giving up on healthy weight loss goals.


1 McManus, K., Antinoro, L., & Sacks, F. (2001). A randomized controlled trial of a moderate-fat, low-energy diet compared with a low fat, low-energy diet for weight loss in overweight adults. International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders , 1503-1511.

2 Piers, L., Walker, K., et al. (2003). Substitution of saturated with monounsaturated fat in a 4-week diet affects body weight and composition of overweight and obese men. The British Journal of Nutrition , 717-27.

3 Cloutier, Marissa, MS, RD and Eve Adamson. The Mediterranean Diet (2004).  Avond Books of HarperCollins Publishers,New York, p.67.

4 Trans Fats 101. (n.d.). Retrieved from University of Maryland Medical Center: www.umm.edu/features/transfats.htm


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