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Polyunsaturated Fats: Myths vs. Facts

MYTH: All fats do the same things

FALSE: Foods with high levels of polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) are linked to many health benefits. Some polyunsaturated fats include omega-3 fatty acids which are associated with supporting eye health, helping with rheumatoid arthritis, maintaining skin integrity, as well as reducing risk of heart attacks and stroke.

10oil.jpgOmega-6 fatty acids are also PUFAs and are associated with reducing risk of cardiovascular disease by helping lower LDL cholesterol, but these are also associated with lowering HDL levels, which may have negative effects.

Other fats like saturated fats and trans fats, found primarily in animal-based foods and hydrogenated foods, have had some evidence that they increase total cholesterol and increase LDL cholesterol. Additionally, foods high in man-made trans fats may also lower your HDL levels.

MYTH: All fats raise cholesterol levels

FALSE: Your dietary fat in the form of polyunsaturated fats affects your blood lipids by lowering your total cholesterol! PUFAs also lower your LDL "bad" cholesterol and lower your HDL "good" cholesterol. Cholesterol does not provide calories. Unlike regular fats, carbs and proteins, your body cannot break it down to provide energy. Furthermore, plant-based sources of fat do not contain any cholesterol.

MYTH: Fats make you fat and you should cut all from your diet

FALSE: Fats are calorically dense foods but are essential to good health! All fats provide 9 calories per gram. Oils are 100% fat and about 120 calories per tablespoon. Though calorically dense, fats are not the preferred energy source of your body, as carbohydrates are the easiest to break down and quickest to release energy. If you consume excess calories, your body stores it in adipose tissue, but it doesn't matter if the excess calories come from proteins, fats or carbohydrates.

Fats are also associated with increasing your satiety after meals. Fats take longer to digest than proteins and carbohydrates. So it is important to add healthy fat choices to your meals or you may find yourself hungry again within an hour or two!

Foods like avocado, walnuts and seafood have naturally occurring polyunsaturated fats that can help slow digestion and increase satiety, while the omega-3s may help prevent arteries hardening, decrease triglyceride levels, and support immunity!

It is recommended that you consume fats at 20 - 35% of your daily calorie intake, while keeping saturated fats and trans fats to a minimum. If you decide to have a very low-fat diet, you may be at risk of not getting enough essential fatty acids and vitamin E. Triglycerides and HDL cholesterol have also been shown to negatively change when dietary fat intake gets too low.

MYTH: Oils are all the same and provide the same benefits

FALSE: All foods with fat contain saturated fat, polyunsaturated fat and monounsaturated fat, but in varying amounts. Some oils have higher amounts of monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats than others. Different fat sources also contain varying amounts of vitamins (especially A and E), omega-3 fatty acids, omega-6 fatty acids, plant stanols and plant sterols, phytonutrients and some minerals!

Fats that are saturated are usually solid at room temperature -- butter, palm oil, fats in cheese in meat, and shortening. Fats that contain mostly PUFAs are liquid at room temperature.

Fat sources that contain the highest levels of PUFAs are vegetable oils, like soybean, sunflower, safflower, flaxseed and corn. Foods that are high in PUFAs include seafood, especially high fat choices like albacore tuna, lake trout, salmon, mackerel, herring and walnuts.

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Emily DeLacey MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian and currently working in Jamaica as a HIV/ AIDS Prevention Specialist. She attended Central Washington University for her Bachelor's Degree in Science and Dietetics and continued on after her internship to Kent State University for her Master's Degree in Science and Nutrition, with a focus on public health and advocacy. She served as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi 2012-2014 working as a Community Health Advisor in a rural village, immersing in the joys of life without electricity or running water. She has been to 20+ countries and 47 of the 50 states in the US. Traveling, adventuring and experiencing new cultures has made her a passionate advocate for the equality of nutrition and wellness for all people.

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