Fat: The Good, Bad, and Ugly

I am not usually one to label food as “good” or “bad,” because food is complex. Its benefits are diverse. For example, today, I might eat strawberries for dessert, because they taste delicious and nourish my body. If it were my birthday, however, I would choose a slice of strawberry cake from my favorite bakery. This is because enjoying food serves as one of its benefits. I appreciate both benefits and try to strike balance between the two. If I were to eat strawberry cake every day, it would become less of a “treat.” I would also miss opportunities to nourish my body with diverse vitamins and minerals.

Keeping this in mind, my article will focus only on the benefit of nourishment. Science has shown that not all fats are created equal. Some types of fat can contribute to cardiovascular damage while others can be anti-inflammatory. Thus, for simplicity sake, I have decided to discuss each type of fat as the “good,” the “bad,” and the “ugly.”

I will get the ugly, trans fats, out of the way first. Please bear with me as I explain some “ugly” chemistry. Trans fats occur when food processors take vegetable oils, which are “unsaturated” or not filled with Hydrogens, and partially hydrogenate them. That means that they add Hydrogens to the oil. Unlike the Hydrogens in unsaturated fats, the Hydrogens in trans fats move to opposite sides of the fat’s molecular double bonds. This can lead to adverse health affects. The shape that trans fat molecules create do not move in the blood easily. Therefore, excess trans fat intake can cause heart disease. It has also been shown to both raise the “bad” LDL cholesterol and lower the “good” HDL cholesterol. Because of this, we should avoid trans fats altogether. Luckily, most food processors have acknowledged the negative health effects of trans fats and are working to replace them in food products. For now, check the ingredients to make sure that “partially hydrogenated oils” are not listed, especially in margarines or snack foods.

Next, the bad, which are saturated fats. Saturated fats tend to be solid at room temperature due to their molecular structure. They also do not move easily through the blood, but they are not as damaging as trans fats. In excess, they can cause heart disease or higher LDL levels. Several health authorities recommended limiting saturated fats to less than 10% of daily Calories. Since excess saturated fat is the problem, our goal should be to lower our intake of its sources. Saturated fats can be found in animal products, such as meats, butter, cheese, and milk.

Here are some strategies to reduce your saturated fat intake:

  1. Choose white meats over red meats.
  2. Purchase leaner cuts of meat.
  3. Replace animal protein with a plant-based protein, such as beans, at least once per week.
  4. Get reduced fat milk instead of whole milk.
  5. Buy part-skim cheese.
  6. Try fat-free, Greek style yogurt instead of regular yogurt.
  7. Cook with olive or canola oil instead of butter.

Finally, the good, which are unsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. Due to their structure, they tend to move more fluidly in the blood. Unsaturated fats include omega-6 and omega-3 sources. Most people consume an adequate amount of omega-6 sources; some even consume an excess amount. With food, you can have too much of a good thing. An excess ratio of omega-6 fats to omega-3 fats can be inflammatory. Therefore, we will focus on omega-3 sources, which are particularly beneficial and underrepresented in most of our diets. Omega-3 sources improve both HDL and LDL and are anti-inflammatory. Omega-3 fats can be found in fish like mackerel, salmon, or sardines. They are also in walnuts and flax seeds. Consume fatty fish two to three times per week instead of another meat source. Replace a packaged snack with one ounce of walnuts. Add a Tablespoon of flax seeds to oatmeal or a smoothie.

See if you can make one or two small changes from above to improve your fat intake this week. No one eats a perfect diet. Perfection is not a sustainable goal. However, small changes add up, improve your health, and are maintainable. The picture below shows an example of such small changes. Instead of choosing a steak for dinner, I prepared a salmon fillet. I cooked my food in extra virgin olive oil instead of butter. Finally, I used a vinaigrette dressing on my salad instead of a creamy dressing.

Take care of yourself and nourish your body using small, easy changes. However, also remember to enjoy your favorite cheeseburger or that slice of strawberry cake every once and a while.

Alicia Gilbert, RD, CPT is a registered dietitian, certified personal trainer, group exercise/ yoga instructor, and current 1 L at The University of Alabama School of Law. Follow her self-taught cooking adventures and occasional disasters on Instagram @coldbrewandcarbs.



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