The subject of dietary fat is very confusing to many people. Some experts say fat is good for us while others say the opposite. Some say we need a certain amount of one type of fat and less of another. What’s the truth though? Who do we believe?
Well, to start with, it’s an indisputable fact that fat is an absolutely essential part of our diets. It provides our bodies with energy and supports cell growth. It helps protect our organs, keeps our skin and hair healthy, and stops us getting cold by placing a layer of insulation directly under the skin. Fat helps us absorb nutrients, and much of a food’s flavor comes from the fat it contains.
However, it comes in several types and it’s this fact that causes much of the confusion. To get the benefits mentioned above, we need to eat the right types, and in the right proportions. Get either, or both, wrong and it can actually be extremely bad for us.
The four main types of fat are:
- Saturated fat
- Polyunsaturated fat
- Monounsaturated fat
These all have different chemical structures and physical properties. Lets take a look at each in more detail:
This is a type of fat that has two main sources. One is red meat – lamb and beef in particular. The other is vegetable oils – of these, palm oil, palm kernel oil and coconut oil contain the most. In fact, coconut oil is nearly 90 percent saturated fat.
For many years now, the medical establishment has been telling us that saturated fat, especially from animals, raises the level of cholesterol in our blood. This supposedly increases our risk of getting cardiovascular disease. However, despite fierce resistance from these people, the current line of thinking is that the theory has been wrong right from the start. The truth of this is indicated by the fact that levels of heart disease and stroke have continued to rise despite food companies reducing the amount of saturated fat in their products.
In reality, saturated fat has been the fall guy for many years. It is actually very good for us but only when eaten in sensible quantities. Overdo it and you’re in trouble – no question. Don’t eat enough though and you miss out on a wide range of nutrients that are vital for your health and well-being. The key, as with most things in life, is finding the right balance.
This type of fat is found mostly in plant-based foods and oils, such as safflower oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, flaxseeds and nuts (especially walnuts). Plants apart, the best source is oily fish, such as salmon, trout, sardines, mackerel and herring.
Polyunsaturated fats provide a wide range of nutrients that help to develop and maintain the body’s cells. Vitamin E, for example – this is an antioxidant vitamin that many of us don’t get nearly enough of. They are also necessary for blood clotting and muscle movement.
A type of polyunsaturated fat called omega-3 is considered to be beneficial for a range of conditions that include Alzheimer’s disease, macular degeneration, inflammation, diabetes and many more. Because of this, omega-3 fats are currently all the rage and the food companies are taking advantage by adding them to their products.
However, all is not as it seems – as ever, the food companies are being less than honest. To understand why, you need to know that there are actually three types of omega-3 fat:
- DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid)
- EPA (Eicosapentaenoic Acid)
- ALA (Alpha-Linolenic Acid)
The main source of DHA and EPA is oily fish and it is these two omega-3 fats that confer the health benefits. ALA is sourced from plants and is far less effective. However, as it is much cheaper, it is ALA that the food companies add to their products and advertize for its ‘amazing health benefits’. Once again, a complete con!
A related issue here is that of omega-6 fats. When eaten in excess, as they typically are in the western diet, they can be very dangerous as we explain here.
Monounsaturated fats are found in a variety of foods and oils. The latter include peanut, canola, sunflower and sesame oil. Another good source is nuts and seeds of all types. Yet another is olives and avocados.
The major benefit of eating these fats is that they are good for cardiovascular health. This is due to the protection they offer against metabolic syndrome – a term that covers a range of related disorders, such as high blood pressure and high blood sugar.
Monounsaturated fats are also effective against insulin resistance, bone weakness, many cancers and mood issues such as anger and depression.
Trans-fats are made from vegetable oils in an industrial process known as hydrogenation. This involves adding hydrogen to vegetable oil which causes the oil to become solid at room temperature. The benefit it offers the food companies is that it doesn’t go off as quickly as natural oil does. As a result, foods made with it have a much longer shelf life.
Just one of the problems with these trans-fats is that they cause calcification in our veins and arteries. This narrows them, thus decreasing the space available for blood to flow. If an affected person then has a blood clot, particularly in one of the coronary arteries, a stroke, or even death, can be the result. Furthermore, studies have shown that trans-fat consumption can also cause Alzheimer’s disease, prostate and breast cancer, type 2 diabetes, liver dysfunction, infertility and depression.
Trans-fats are found in all types of processed food – baked goods (pies, bread, cakes, biscuits and muffins), snacks (popcorn, chocolate and potato chips), fried food (fish, doughnuts and chicken), plus many more. It is also a main ingredient in margarine.
Limited amounts of saturated fat, animal or vegetable, are very good for us if not essential. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are also good for us and can be eaten more freely than saturated fat. Just remember they are fats and, as such, are fattening.
Trans-fats are a different story altogether and should be avoided like the plague. This means you should stop eating all processed foods as of now! While it is true the food companies are beginning to reduce the amount of trans-fats in their products, their use is still widespread and will be for a long time to come.