We were taught to fear fat. We were taught that eating fat makes us fat. But what if I told you we were WRONGLY taught? Yep, eating fat does not automatically make you fat. Eating fat doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to die of a heart attack either. In fact, some types of fat decrease the likelihood of developing heart disease. But before you go smear yourself in butter, read on.
In the interest of ending on a good note, I am going to explain dietary fats in order from worst to best.
Trans Fat = BAD…bad…bad.
This type of fat is found naturally in some foods; but, to a much larger degree, trans fatty acids are man-made. Trans fatty acids are formed by a process called hydrogenation. As mentioned in previous posts, the most important factor in determining if a food is “healthy or not” is determined mostly by reading the ingredients list. If you see the word “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” anywhere on the ingredients list, your food contains trans fat (even if it says “zero grams trans fat per serving”).
What’s up with trans fats? Well, I will tell you that trans fats lead to the rare occasion that I will say that something is “bad for you.” I tend to have a pretty real-life approach to foods, but trans fats are nasty little buggers. Trans fats do a lot to our internal physiology; but they are most famous for increasing our “bad” (LDL) cholesterol while simultaneously decreasing our “good” (HDL) cholesterol.
The following foods may or may not contain hydrogenated fat, but they tend to be the most likely hiding places:
- Vegetable shortening (Crisco is a popular brand of this!)
- Microwave popcorn
- Cake mix
- Brownie mix
- Store-bought cookies
- Store-bought crackers
- Store-bought frosting
- Pie crust
- Fried foods (grandma’s pan-fried chicken perhaps?)
- Some popular brands of peanut butter
- Some margarines
Saturated Fat = Not the greatest, yet not the worst thing either…
Despite their reputation for trying to kill us, saturated fatty acids might not be to blame for the continuing rise of heart disease. I am not going to take the time to post a full literature review here to support my thoughts on the matter, but I have done one recently if you really want to read it. J I will add that just because saturated fats might not be “as bad” as we once thought, it does not mean that you can load up on a belly full of them each and every day. Saturated fat will raise BOTH your “bad” (LDL) and your “good” (HDL) cholesterol.
Saturated fats are most abundantly found in animal-based foods. However, coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil are the three exceptions to the rule, as they are plant-based saturated fat sources.
The following foods are most abundant with saturated fat:
- Beef, chicken, pork, chicken, lamb. (any animal meat)
- Bacon, sausage
- Yogurt, cheese, milk (1%, 2%, or whole)
- Coconut oil
- Palm oil
- Palm kernel oil
The bottom line is to still limit your intake of saturated fat to some degree (limit your intake of meat by consuming plant-based proteins often; trim excess fat off steaks and roasts; consume smaller amounts of butter, milk, and cheese). In other words, it is not too big a deal if you consume 2% milk provided you are only having 2 or 3 – 8 oz glasses per day. If you’re consuming your body weight in cheese AND eating lots of meat…then you’ll have some problems. I’d add that “fat-free” dairy isn’t automatically better.
Polyunsaturated Fat = Mostly good, if you do it right…
Ever hear all the buzz around omega-3 fats? Well, omega-3 fatty acids happen to fall under the umbrella of polyunsaturated fatty acids. I’ll spare you the chemistry lesson here, but rest assured that omega-3 fat is super good for you. Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid, meaning your body cannot make it “in-house” and must consume it through food. Omega-3 helps to reduce inflammation; and inflammation is they underlying foundation underneath nearly every single chronic health ailment you can think of. Omega-3 fats also do a host of other awesome things inside your body; too many to list here! One of its most famous party tricks is that omega-3 fat helps to reduce your “bad” (LDL) cholesterol while increasing the “good” (HDL) cholesterol.
Foods high in omega-3 content include:
- The infamous wild-caught salmon
- Tuna, especially albacore tuna
- Cod fish
- Flaxseed (ground)
- Chia seeds
Interestingly, there is another essential fatty acid we are required to obtain from food: omega-6 fatty acid. However, in the Standard American Diet (SAD), most of us get WAY TOO MUCH omega-6 fat, and not nearly enough omega-3. Because a too-high-intake of omega-6 fat in the absence of adequate omega-3 fat increases systemic inflammation, this imbalance leads to increased risk of heart disease and many other health ailments. All that said, I highly suggest you do your best to avoid high omega-6 foods.
Foods with a high omega-6 content:
- Vegetable oil (it is actually soybean oil)
- Corn oil
- Safflower oil
When you read the list of omega-6-rich foods, keep in mind that although you may not overtly consume these oils, they are hidden inside about 90% of processed foods you may eat on a daily basis. If you order fish off a restaurant menu, and that menu item doesn’t specify the type of fish, odds are it is tilapia. Those potato chips you just snacked on probably were fried in either corn or safflower oil. Nearly every single thing we eat these days from a bag or a box contains soy in some form, and usually soybean oil (aka vegetable oil). Grandma’s Country Crock? Omega-6. Be on the lookout – it is literally everywhere…
Monounsaturated Fat = Beautiful…wonderful…downright marvelous.
Ah, my darlings…I’ve saved the best for last. Like its omega-3 polyunsaturated buddy, monounsaturated fat is superb in terms of its effect on our health. Monounsaturated fatty acids help to reduce systemic inflammation, thus reducing our risk for many chronic disease states including heart disease. Monounsaturated fats are, in part, what the Mediterranean Diet is known for in terms of improving our heart health. Monounsaturated fatty acids help to simultaneously reduce our “bad” (LDL) cholesterol while increasing our “good” (HDL) cholesterol.
Foods high in monounsaturated fatty acid:
- Natural peanut butter (NOT Jif (see Trans Fat section) containing only peanuts & salt
- Extra-virgin olive oil (best for use in things not heated, such as salad dressing)
- Canola oil
- Peanut oil
- Sesame oil
- This post was all about the fats, but how we eat overall still can make or break our body’s response to our fat choices.
- “Whole foods first” is the mantra to live by. For example, you can get “good” fat from avocado oil; but you can get “good” fat, potassium, fiber, B-vitamins, magnesium, and more fullness in your belly from eating a whole avocado.
- Too much of a good thing is still too much. Just because olive oil is a “good” type of fat doesn’t mean you can or should guzzle a bottle with dinner.
- Try to replace some of the less-healthy fats with better options rather than simply adding the other fats. An example of this would be using mashed avocado instead of mayo on your sandwich or in your egg salad. It doesn’t mean you’ll die if you eat mayo; it’s just that avocado gives you better fat and more nutrition.
- Eating fat doesn’t make you fat. Eating too much and sitting too much will. As a matter of fact, including healthy fat with your meals and snacks (or built in, such as in a handful of almonds) can help you stay fuller for longer, which helps you eat less overall and lose weight.
Just to recap:
- Trans Fat = BAD…bad…bad. Watch out for the word hydrogenated.
- Saturated Fat = Not the greatest, yet not the worst thing either. Eat the butter (not the margarine) but don’t get crazy with it!
- Polyunsaturated Fat = Mostly good, if you do it right. More salmon, less tilapia.
- Monounsaturated Fat = Beautiful…wonderful…downright marvelous. Use canola oil instead of vegetable oil; better yet, eat a handful of peanuts and put avocado on your salad instead of dressing!
That was a lot of information to digest (pun intended). Let it sink in a bit. Even if it doesn’t sink in, just focus on an eating style that includes a ton of whole vegetables, some whole fruit and whole grains, some plant-based proteins, a little bit lean meats and dairy, and a whole bunch of water and exercise. Keep it simple.
Until next time…