06/25/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Fats: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The basic building blocks of a good diet are protein, carbohydrates and fats. While many diet fads favor protein and disdain carbohydrates like the Atkin's and the South Beach diet, fat has been lost and neglected amidst confusion and misinformation. Yet fats are essential for so many critical functions in health and wellness.

Let's examine the functions that fats serve in our body. It stores energy and maintains insulation--yes it does keep the body warm but also protects nerve fibers, organs and the rest of the body from injury and damage. But more importantly fat is used to make hormones, help transmit nerve signals, lubricate arteries and slow down the aging process.

Of course there are good and bad fats. For health you want to take in good fats and avoid bad fats. But how do you distinguish the good from the bad? I will discuss this in more detail later on but for now a simple way to tell is this: If a fat doesn't move at room temperature then it will stay that way inside your body and clog up your arteries. Lard and butter will do just that. So what you really want are oils because at room temperature they remain liquid and fluid and generally have beneficial properties for your health.

Fats: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

There are three types of fat: monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated.

Monounsaturated fats -- including olive oil, sesame oil, canola oil, almond oil, flax oil and fish oil -- are good fats. These contain essential fatty acids such as omega-3 and gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) that are critical in brain development and function, skin health, vascular health, proper immune function, fertility and normal physical development.

Polyunsaturated fats -- such as margarine, corn oil, hydrogenated safflower oil and sunflower oil, also contain essential fatty acids. Unfortunately, these fats are highly refined and contain large amounts of trans fat. Trans fat, created by hydrogenating vegetable oil to make it spreadable, is implicated in both cancer and heart disease.

Saturated fats - the bad kind of fat. Included in this category is butter, peanut oil, coconut oil, palm kernel oil and lard. These saturated fats elevate cholesterol and triglyceride levels, leading to an increased chance of heart attack and stroke. These oils are best avoided.

Oil from the Sea
The reason that salmon was being promoted as a health food in the first place is that it is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are also called essential fatty acids (EFAs) or good fats. More specifically, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are the long chain omega-3 fatty acids found in fish. Studies have found that these compounds appear to protect against the modern world's most deadly diseases -- heart disease, stroke and cancer. Omega-3 fats assist in reducing inflammation and can be beneficial for inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease. Omega-3 fats may also play a role in reducing depression and other mental health disorders. For a list of fish high in Omega-3s and low in toxins and contaminants, click here to go to the Tao of Wellness.

The Lowdown on Oil Oils that originate from vegetable, nut and seed sources provide the essential fatty acids that are critical for our nerve and brain functions. The typical vegetable oils that can be found at supermarkets have undergone chemical and heat processing that destroy the quality of the oil -- bleaching, cooking, defoaming, distillation, extraction, refining and the addition of preservatives. Additionally, many of these oils are exposed to light and air and are even potentially filled with pesticides.

All of this causes the formation of free radicals, which undermine the health benefits of consuming essential fatty acids. To ensure that you are receiving all of the possible benefits from your oil, buy organic, cold-pressed, minimally processed oils at your local health food store. Be sure that you consume oil within three months. To prevent it from becoming rancid, store your oil in the refrigerator in dark glass containers.

Two Stand-Out Oils The essential ingredient of the Mediterranean diet, olive oil, has been found to have beneficial effects on blood lipids and it may even lower blood pressure. According to the World Health Organization, nearly 60 percent of strokes and 50 percent of heart disease are associated with high blood pressure.

Hypertension is estimated to be the cause of 7.1 million deaths per year worldwide. A recent study has concluded that olive oil intake is "inversely associated with both systolic and diastolic blood pressure." The bottom line: consuming more olive oil is linked to lowered blood pressure.

Sesame oil -- the oil favored by Chinese centenarians -- is enjoyed for its delicious nutty flavor and also possesses some considerable therapeutic properties. Chinese medicine lists sesame as a blood builder, a kidney and liver tonic, and a bowel protector and regulator. It is rich in phytic acid, the antioxidant that may prevent cancer. Lignan sesamin, one variety of sesame oil, appeared to radically reduce cholesterol levels in the bloodstream and liver of rats.

To benefit your health and enhance your meals, add some olive or sesame oil to your food and salads; sprinkle sesame seeds and oil into your dishes regularly. Some other excellent choices for oils include: walnut oil, flaxseed oil and almond oil.

I hope after reading this article your perception of fats will change and instead of being fearful and confused of fats in your diet that you will begin to be selective about beneficial fats for your health and wellness.