Fats: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Remember the 1990s, when super-low-fat diets were all the rage? Everywhere you looked, low-fat versions of processed foods were popping up. People avoided things like cheese like the plague. Even avocados got a bad rap! Turns out, as it so often does with fad diets, that the information these choice were based on was very misguided.
What is fat, actually?
There are four kinds of fat we encounter in our food system:
- Saturated fats, from animal fat and tropical oils? (coconut oil)
- Monounsaturated fat, such as olive oil
- Polyunsaturated fat, such as omega-3 and omega-6
- Trans fats, such as margarine
Some can have negative health impacts, sure. But some are crucial to our well-being.
So what can you actually eat? And how does one navigate the complex world of fat?
Let's start with a little education.
Saturated fats – good or bad?
Even after the eat-no-fat fad wore off, people still came down hard on saturated fats. The claim was they were bad for your heart (not to mention your waistline).
Today, studies show some saturated fat is actually necessary for a healthy diet. In fact, a healthy diet contains 16 to 18 grams of saturated fat per day!
In fact, many indigenous tribes eat high-saturated fat diets, yet have low mortality from heart disease. Why? Their diets are lower in sugar and their lifestyles are more active.
For instance, societies with high fat diets, low mortality rates from heart disease and low obesity rates include:
- The Tokealu in New Zealand eat fish and coconuts, with a diet containing 60% fat.
- The Inuit eat whale meat and blubber, with a diet containing a whoping 75% saturated fat!
The moral of the story is that merely focusing on saturated fats will not make you healthier or slimmer. Instead, pay attention to the volume of saturated fat you consume - and your lifestyle as a whole - if you want to stay healthy and lose weight.
Other than the 16-18 grams of saturated fats mentioned above, adults will want to stick to monounsaturated fats like olive oil and avocados. Both have been linked to reducing harmful LDL cholesterol. (One caveat: olive oil should NOT be heated, as high heat causes it to become free-radical rich and pro-inflammatory.)
Polyunsaturated Fats (Omega 3)
Also, try to eat more polyunsaturated fats like omega 3 fatty acids. These essential fatty acids, vital for health, cannot be produced by the body. Every one of our bodies’ 100 trillion living cells needs essential fatty acids to rebuild and produce new cells. Healthy omega-3 oils can be found in fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, plus walnuts and freshly ground flax seeds.
Today we consume far too many omega-6 oils, which increase inflammation, compared to omega-3 oils, which decrease inflammation. The primary reason for an epidemic of imbalance between these oils today is our excessive consumption of the wrong oils – corn, sunflower, peanut, soy, canola and safflower.
- olive oil (unheated)
- cold water fatty fish like salmon
- flax seeds
- Omega-6-rich oils like corn, sunflower, peanut, soy, canola and safflower Trans fats (see below)
Want to avoid unhealthy fat? Eliminate trans fats, plain and simple.
Trans fats – or partially hydrogenated fats – are formed when liquid vegetable oils are made into solid fats such as shortening and hard margarine.
Trans fats pack a double whammy: in addition to raising levels of LDL, or "bad" cholesterol, they also decrease HDL, "good" cholesterol. Many researchers also suspect trans fats increase the risk of heart disease, as well as type 2 diabetes, colon cancer and breast cancer.
How many trans fats should we eat in a day? Zero!
Foods containing trans fats:
- French fries
- Hard margarines
- Chicken nuggets
In Conclusion - Remember Moderation
Know what was so unhealthy about the fat-free fad I started this article with?
The fact that people sometimes get an idea in their heads, like "fat is bad," and become limiting and restrictive in their diets to the point of missing out on stuff that's great for us.
Even enjoying the occasional pastry or order of french fries is okay! Just remember to keep it in check, and listen to your body - it'll let you know when you've gone a bit overboard.
Trans fats and omega-6 fatty acids may be bad for us, but restricting yourself to the point of stress and deprivation - that's just ugly :).