Fats - Not Created Equal

To expand on Dr. Willett’s quote from my last blog, we’ve often heard that fat is bad. Simple as that. However, this is not true and is never what the science showed, but was rather a tragic oversimplification of the science. Saturated fat was the culprit contributing to increased disease and mortality. But other fats, such as mono- and poly-unsaturated fats, were, and still are, shown to be healthy for you. Importantly, I am not saying these fats are “not as bad” for you. I am saying they are in fact healthy for you. Like a fruit or a vegetable, they actually contribute in many ways to health and longevity. Such fats play integral roles in regulating cholesterol, protecting nerves, building hormones, controlling blood clotting, and more. Without diving too deep into the literature on fats, it is worth noting that the reputable Nurses’ Health Study has shown that replacing 5% of total calories as saturated fat with unsaturated fat reduces the risk of heart attack or death from heart disease by 40%. This is no small reduction! Also, in the Seven Countries study from long ago, the country with the lowest rate of heart disease (Crete) had the highest average total fat intake, mostly from olive oil. This is because not all fats are created equal. There are good fats and bad fats. Saturated and trans-fats are the bad ones, so avoid them when you can!

To help you at the grocery store, I have provided a list below that includes the most common sources of good and bad fats. This list also appears in Dr. Willett’s book, which I described a couple blogs ago. Some of these items are probably obvious, while others may be surprising.

Good Fat (Poly- and Mono-Unsaturated Fat)
  • Peanuts, cashews, peanut butter, and most other nuts
  • Avocadoes, corn, soybeans, and olives
  • Olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, soybean oil, safflower oil, and corn oil
  • Fish
Bad Fat (Saturated Fat)
  • ·       Whole milk, butter, cheese, and ice cream
  •      Red meat
  •      Chocolate
  •      Coconuts, coconut milk, and coconut oil

Bad Fat (Tans-Fat)
*Mostly banned now, but may still pop up in restaurants from the following sources.
  • ·       Most margarines
  •      Vegetable shortenings and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils
  •      Deep fried chips and French fried
  •      Many fast foods and commercial baked goods

While often favored for its multi-purpose uses ranging from cosmetics to cooking, note that coconut oil is actually lumped into the “bad fat” category next to cheese, butter, and red meat. So while they may be fine to apply as skin or hair cosmetics, from a dietary standpoint most coconut products are major sources of saturated fat and therefore should be eaten sparingly. An exception is coconut water sold at the store. Most of these drinks have been processed to remove the fat. Though if you’re unsure, you can always check the nutrition label on the back of the product.  

A word on fat-free products

It is important to realize that most non-fat products maintain good flavor by simply replacing fats with sugars. And this is not necessarily a good thing. It fact, it is often bad. First, you may be replacing good fats with empty sugars calories, as is often the case with non-fat salad dressing where healthy oils have been replaced with nutritionally deprived sugars. In other cases, such as milk and cheese, low- or fat-free options make sense. Second, non-fat products, while lower in fat, often contain the same or more in total calories. And importantly, carbohydrates (sugars) increase weight just as effectively as fats. Third, eating refined sugar leads to insulin spikes in the blood that don’t occur when eating fat. Finally, eating non-fat products can have the unintended effect of making the consumer think they can eat more of that product, since it’s fat free, ultimately resulting in higher calorie intake and weight gain. So be careful when you choose “fat-free.” 

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                                                                                             Shahir Masri, M.S.


  1. Thanks for this very important piece of information for our health. I didn't know that non-fat salad dressings replaced the fat with sugar. The distinction between the different kinds of fats is so very important, I'm sure glad I know this now.

  2. Oh, and I wonder about the coconut oil. It has been claimed to have very positive effects on the brain and learning and memory, some recommend having a little bit every day. I wonder if the negative health effects outweigh the benefits that this type of oil has for the brain. Maybe you can blog on that sometime.

    1. Yeah good idea for a blog. I would suspect, however, that the cardiovascular benefits outweigh the neurological benefits given the that heart disease is still the leading cause of death (in the U.S. at least)...and largely due to saturated fat intake.

  3. I agree that not all fats are create equal and find the information shared very interesting. The good/bad list bring a couple of questions to me, specially corn since this product is in the top of the list of most genetically modify in the market and the sweet corn has not been truly tested for it save consumption. However I do love corn and will continue to eat it from time to time.

    1. Good question about corn. I am actually a proponent of corn. It is tasty, healthy, and so easy to cook. Also corn oil is high in poly-unsaturated fats, which makes it a healthy cooking oil. The issue with GMOs is a good one that you bring up. However, GMO corn is in almost everything these days in the form of corn syrup, so it doesn't really do us much good to avoid eating corn at the dinner table. Also, it is important to keep in mind that although GMOs get a lot of hype among public and in the media, there still remains scientific evidence that there is a health risk from eating GMOs. I wrote an earlier article called "GMOs: What Are The Risks?" that you might be interested in reading. You can view it at: http://shahirmasri.blogspot.com/2014/01/gmos-what-are-risks.html

  4. These are all great reviews and recommendation. I love reading these types of blogs because I am a vegetarian and his helps with selections of items that I buy.

  5. For people worried about the chemical process used to extract canola oil, you can buy oil extracted via presses and even in organic form. Great way to get you omega 3

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