The Skinny on Fat
Have you ever wondered why some things that taste so good are so bad for you? It doesn’t seem fair, does it? Well, some good news I’ll reveal today is that some fats you’ve probably given up, you may be able to incorporate back into your diet, in moderation.
In last week’s post, “Fat: Good or Bad for You?” I discussed how fat is essential for our bodies to function properly, how much fat is recommended and some “good” fat foods to eat. Today, I’ll discuss the different types of fat and which one you want to avoid at all costs.
Types of Fat
There are two types of fat that our bodies need, saturated and unsaturated fats. While saturated fats have gotten a bad rap over the years, the truth is we need some saturated fats in our diet. The problem is the Standard American Diet (SAD) is loaded with saturated fats, far exceeding what our bodies need.
Fat by any other name is still fat
In its most simplistic explanation fat is fat. However, fat, and the various types of fat, is one of the most complex nutrients to understand. Too much of the wrong kind, and we increase our risk for heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other illnesses. Not enough healthy fats and our cells, organs and tissues may not function properly.
The truth is not all fats are the same. The chemical makeup, specifically the number of hydrogen and carbon atoms, of each fat is not only what differentiates it, but also impacts how our bodies absorb and digest the type of fat we consume.
Saturated fats are typically in solid form at room temperature. The word “saturated” refers to the number of hydrogen atoms surrounding each carbon atom. Saturated fats are full of hydrogen atoms.
Most saturated fats come from animals and animal byproducts: meats, cheese, milk, etc. There are limited plant foods that contain saturated fat, such as coconuts.
Saturated fats have gained notoriety over the years with all the various studies and claims that saturated fat will increase your bad cholesterol and increase your risk of heart disease. While some of these claims may be true, it’s still good to get some saturated fat into your diet. Yet, according to Harvard Health, no more than 10% of your daily calories should contain saturated fat.
If you’re eating 2000 calories a day, it’s recommended no more than 200 calories should come from saturated fats. With respect to food this will translate as follows:
- 3 ½ oz of boneless, skinless chicken breast is 134 calories
- 3 ½ oz of grass-fed ground beef is 198 calories
- 3 ½ oz. of American cheese is 180 calories
One simple cheeseburger can exceed your daily allowance of saturated fats.
Unsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature. They’re considered beneficial fats because they can improve blood cholesterol levels, ease inflammation, stabilize heart rhythms, and play a number of other beneficial roles in our bodies.
Healthy unsaturated fats come mainly from vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fish. They differ from saturated fats by having fewer hydrogen atoms bonded to their carbon chains.
There are two broad categories of beneficial unsaturated fats: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
According to the article, “The truth about fats: the good, the bad, and the in-between,” published by Harvard Health, a seven country study performed in the 1960’s discovered that Greece reported a low incidence of heart disease and much of this is attributed to what has become known today as the “Mediterranean Diet.” Many foods they eat, especially olive oil, is high in monounsaturated fats.
Polyunsaturated fats are essential fats. That means they’re required for normal body function, but your body can’t make them. So, you must get them from food. Polyunsaturated fats are used to build cell membranes and the covering of nerves. They are needed for blood clotting, muscle movement, and inflammation.
A polyunsaturated fat has two or more double bonds in its carbon chain. There are two main types of polyunsaturated fats: omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. The numbers refer to the distance between the beginning of the carbon chain and the first double bond. Both types offer health benefits.
While polyunsaturated fats have health benefits, those benefits occur when the consumption of omega-6 fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids adhere to a consumption ratio of 4:1. Unfortunately, the Standard American Diet is high in omega 6-fatty acids and low in omega-3 fatty acids.
An imbalance of the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio can lead to many diseases such as heart disease, inflammation, autoimmune diseases and cancer.
Omega-3 Fatty acids
These are a healthier type of polyunsaturated fat in that it can be an anti-inflammatory agent, help decrease bad lipids and increase good lipids. It’s also known for supporting mental health. A high content of omega-3 fatty acids can be found in these foods: Salmon, sardines, anchovies, flax seed, chia seed and walnuts.
Omega-6 Fatty acids
Omega-6 fatty acids are essential and primarily needed for energy. Based on the standard American diet, most of the consumption of omega-6 fatty acids is through the consumption of vegetable oils. While you might be thinking you don’t cook or eat a lot of vegetable oils, I challenge you to review the labels on any food item in your pantry. Most likely you’ll find canola oil, sun/safflower oil, soybean oil, or another type of oil listed as an ingredient.
While we do need omega-6 fatty acids, as a nation, we are consuming way too much of this type of fat.
Based on the sales of non-perishable/processed foods in the United States, the average person is consuming a 10:1 or even as high as 50:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.
Of course, reducing your consumption of processed foods will improve this ratio and most likely your health.
There are two types of trans fats, natural and artificial. Natural trans fats are formed by bacteria in the stomachs of cattle, sheep and goats. Hence, natural trans fats can be found in these meats or byproducts, such as milk or cheese.
Artificial trans fats are created when vegetables are heated at such a high level to create hydrogenation, a process which prevents oils from becoming rancid in a solid state. Think shortening, margarine, etc.
Artificial trans fats are the absolute worst for your health.
These fats can impact your blood cholesterol, increase risk of heart disease, impact insulin resistance, lead to inflammation, etc. Trans fats are so bad for you they’ve been banned in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration since 2015. But they haven’t completely left the US and I’ll explain more when I discuss the best oils to cook with in the next post.
So, what fat can you put back into your diet?
At the beginning of this post I mentioned there was one fat that many people stopped eating and I’m saying you might want to rethink. With the low-fat craze of the eighties and all the negative press about saturated fats, many people switched to margarine, which is a vegetable-based oil, lower in saturated fat. However, margarine is high in artificial trans fats, at least until it was recently banned. Again, more on that in the next post.
So, if you like a little pat of butter on your baked potato, I say go for it. Use real butter instead of margarine. Unless you’re vegan or have an allergy to dairy, using real butter (Kerrygold is my favorite), is preferred over margarine. Although, in moderation!
Whew! This was a tough post to write and I hope I’ve clarified why fat is such a complicated nutrient.
Basically, eat lean meats, more fish (especially salmon), limit dairy, limit (or eliminate) processed foods and fried foods and definitely stay away from trans fats!
I pray you’ll digest all this and take away something that can improve your health.