Good fat, bad fat; good cholesterol, bad cholesterol; good diet, bad diet. It is numbing sometimes, trying to sift and sort all the advice thrown at us. It never ends. Drink, don’t drink. Run, no – don’t run, walk. Wear protective gear. Look both ways. Check with your doctor before….just about everything. Save lots of money but be sure to be a dutiful consumer and spend America back to prosperity. How is all this possible?
Of course, it isn’t all possible. You will eat a lovely, greasy, salty pile of french fries some time this week and relish every single bite. You will skip the gym, not bother to floss, buy some lottery tickets (despite the odds – someone has to win!), have a beer or two, plop in front of a screen and veg out. We all do it. The trick is to make it the exception, not the rule.
So let’s talk about fat, more specifically dietary fat, the stuff that makes food taste great. Fat itself is not the enemy. Nearly all foods contain several types of fat. Some are good for you, some are not. You mustn’t eliminate all fats from your diet; healthy fats keep your body working. Important fat-soluble vitamins and essential fatty acids will be very unhappy if you leave them behind. This means you have to think a bit about what you eat and not rely on processed ‘health’ foods with labels that promise all sorts of nonsense. And this means, of course, that we are talking about a diet built around fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes.
There are all kinds of fats. Dietary fat is found in plant and animal foods. It is one of the three micronutrients that gives your body energy. The other two are protein and carbohydrates. Your body also makes its own fat from excess calories. Without some fats, the body simply could not function.
The worrying kinds of fats are some of the dietary types believed to have a role in cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, not to mention obesity and cancer. This field of research is ever-evolving, but most studies suggest that eating healthy fats and staying clear of unhealthy fats is a pretty good way to protect and support your long-term health and fitness.
Cholesterol is also part of the cardiovascular disease challenge, but cholesterol is not a fat. It is a fat-like substance. The body makes some of its own and also absorbs some dietary cholesterol from foods of animal origin (such as meat and eggs). Here again, not all cholesterol is bad. In fact, cholesterol is vital to cell-building and produces certain important hormones. The trick here, however, is that the body itself makes what it needs; you do not need to add any dietary cholesterol. Too much cholesterol in your diet can increase the ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol levels in your system. Saturated fats are even worse in this department, by the way, and most foods that contain saturated fat also bring along cholesterol where it is not welcome.
Let’s have a quick look at ‘good dietary fat’ and ‘bad dietary fat. We could also say ‘less harmful’ and ‘harmful’; ‘health-supporting’ and ‘health-destroying’. ‘better’ and ‘less better’…
- Polyunsaturated fat. Found mostly in plant-based foods and oils, evidence indicates that eating foods rich in polyunsaturated fats improves blood cholesterol levels. This, in turn, can decrease the risk of heart disease. The risk of type 2 diabetes is also decreased by polyunsaturated fats. Omega-3 fatty acids, one kind of polyunsaturated fat, are particularly beneficial to the heart: studies suggest they decrease the risk of coronary artery disease, protect against irregular heart beats and help lower blood pressure.
- Monounsaturated fat. Found is lots of foods and oils, research indicates that eating foods containing plenty of monounsaturated fats improve blood cholesterol levels. These fats may benefit insulin levels and blood sugar control as well, helpful for those with type 2 diabetes. Foods containing plenty of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature, such as olive oil, peanut oil, safflower oil and corn oil.
- Trans fats. Even the name is shady. Most trans fats are made during food processing through the partial hydrogenation of unsaturated fats. Some trans fats do occur naturally in foods, particularly in foods from animals. The processing created fats that are easier to cook with and far less likely to spoil or go rancid than their naturally occurring counterparts. Trans fats are also called synthetic or industrial trans fats. Tons of evidence indicates that synthetic trans fats can increase ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and, at the same time, suppress ‘good’ HDL cholesterol. This means more cardiovascular disease risk.
- Saturated fats. These fats come mainly from animal food sources. The risk of type 2 diabetes may be increased by too much consumption of saturated fats. And saturated fats raise total blood cholesterol levels, along with increasing levels of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol. Most of the fats that have high levels of trans fats or saturated fats are solid at room temperature and are often called solid fats because of this, and include: shortening, margarine, butter, pork and beef fat.