Fat has undergone a rebranding over the past 50 years that have been detrimental to its image. As a result, we tend to view fat as negatively impacting our diet, and try to limit the amount that we ingest. Fat, in and of itself, is a necessary component of our diet, necessary for to propel our body and mind through our busy days. Fat is stored energy, which is later utilized when the body is short of other energy sources, letting our bodies function even when immediate nutritional resources are scarce. Depending on what recommendation you look at, fat should compose anywhere between 20% – 35% of our caloric intake – quite a chunk, indeed!
The irony is, in all the fear surrounding fat, most people in the West eat far too many of them! Obesity rates are at epidemic levels, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US, and our children are heavier than ever. It’s difficult to navigate the landscape of fat in our food, because it is in so many of the processed foods that we eat. In short, it’s difficult to avoid.
Types of Fat
Choosing the types of fat that your body ingests is one way of ensuring optimum health. Possibly more important than the amount of fat you ingest, is the type of fat. Here’s a quick overview of the most commonly ingested fats our diets:
Trans Fat: Most trans fat that we eat is found in processed foods, and is created using a process known as partial hydrogenation of unsaturated fats. The resulting trans fat is less prone to spoilage and is easier to cook with. The down side of this, though, is that trans fats are much worse for the body – heart-health in particular. They have been proven to raise LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) and lower HDL cholesterol (the good kind), resulting in an increased risk of heart disease. Trans fats also occur naturally in meat an animal products. These are just as unhealthy as manufactured trans fats.
Saturated Fat: This is the most commonly cited fat as being detrimental to health. The main negative aspect of saturated fat is that it increases LDL levels in the body, which increases your chance of developing heart disease. It has also been linked to type 2 diabetes when consumed in high levels. A whole host of health officials recommend reduction and limitations in intake of saturated fats including US Health and Human Services, World Health Organization, and UK Food Standards Agency, to name a few. Saturated fats are most commonly found in animal meat and products.
Monounsaturated Fats: On a molecular level, monounsaturated fats differentiate themselves from saturated fats by having a single double bond in their fat chain, capable of supporting a hydrogen atom. As such, they have a weaker overall structure, lowering their melting point significantly. When left at room temperature, they are a liquid. Olive oil, for instance, is a liquid when kept in the cupboard. Contrary to this, butter is a solid at room temperature. As such, monounsaturated fat moves more smoothly through the system. Studies show that when monounsaturated fats are substituted for saturated fats in the diet, they lower LDL cholesterol, while boosting HDL cholesterol count. They also decrease the risk of developing diabetes.
Polyunsaturated Fats: These are much like monounsaturated fats described above, except that they have multiple double bonds in their molecular structure, making them capable of holding more hydrogen atoms, which leaves them even more unstable. They have many of the same nutritional benefits, such as lowering LDL and boosting HDL count, as well as defending against diabetes.
Unsaturated Fat: When people refer to unsaturated fat, they are referring to both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
Good Sources of Good Fats
Avocado: Roughly 75% of avocado’s calories come from fat, most of these being monounsaturated. Avocados have been proven to boost HDL cholesterol by significant levels when consumed even in moderation, and lower LDL cholesterol.
Olive Oil: 84% of the fats found in olive oil are unsaturated fat, making it the healthiest choice of cooking oils. Studies suggest that when 2 tablespoons of olive oil are ingested daily – and replace other saturated fats in the diet – the risk of coronary heart disease decreases significantly. It also has all sorts of other health benefits apart from its heart-healthy fat, including high phenolic content, and high levels of vitamin E and vitamin K.
Nuts: Most nuts also have high levels of naturally occurring unsaturated fats, particularly monounsaturated fat. Studies also indicate that this fat can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Nuts and nut butters are a great way to replace other fats found in snack foods that are regularly ingested, such as potato chips.
Sunflower Oil: This has one of the highest levels of polyunsaturated fat content in any oil, making it an extremely healthy food. Sunflower oil can be difficult to use, though. Probably the easiest way to use it is as a dressing for salad. Mix sunflower oil with some balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper, and it makes for a tasty – and healthy – salad.
Tahini: This is ground sesame seed that is produced as a paste. It is most commonly found in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine. 1 tablespoon of tahini has about 12%DV of your daily fat, most of this composed of monounsaturated fats. Goes great in hummus, or simply as a dip with fresh vegetables.
The key to healthy fat intake is fat replacement. Simply adding healthy fats on top of excessive unhealthy fat intake will have a negative impact on your overall health. So, make sure to limit the amount of butter, hydrogenated oils, and saturated fats, while consuming more unsaturated fats. Not only will you be healthier, you’ll feel it, too!