Dietary Fats: The Good and the Bad
We’ve all heard about “good fat” and “bad fat”, generally in reference to fat’s potential to cause disease. All fats have the same amount of calories, but their chemical composition varies. Fats are made of carbon and hydrogen atoms. “Saturation” refers to whether all the available spaces on the carbon atoms are bonded to hydrogen atoms, or if there are any hydrogen atoms missing. The three forms of fat found in nature are:
These fats have all of their carbon atoms filled with or saturated with hydrogen. Saturated fat is found mostly in fatty cuts of meat, poultry with the skin, whole and 2 percent dairy products, butter, cheese, and tropical oils (i.e. coconut, palm, and palm kernel). An eating plan high in saturated fat can cause a person’s bad cholesterol (LDL) to rise. The risk of developing certain types of cancer may be associated with a high intake of saturated fat.
These fats have one space missing a hydrogen atom, instead containing a double bond between carbon atoms. Monounsaturated fat is found in olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, and in most nuts and nut butters. This type of fat does not cause cholesterol to increase. When a person substitutes monounsaturated for saturated fat, it helps lower bad cholesterol, and protects good cholesterol (HDL) from decreasing.
These fats have more than one space missing in the carbon chain and contain more than one double bond as a result. Two major categories of polyunsaturated fats are Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 means there is a double bond in the third space from the end of the carbon chain. These fatty acids are extremely healthful in that they protect against sudden death from heart attack. They can also help a person lower his or her triglycerides. Omega-3s are used by the body to produce hormone-like substances with anti-inflammatory effects. The best sources of Omega-3s are fatty fish- salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, and rainbow trout, among others. Canola oil, walnuts, and flaxseed also contain some. Omega-6 fats have a double bond in the sixth space from the end of the carbon chain. These fats are found in oils like corn, soybean, cottonseed, sunflower, and safflower. Omega-6 fatty acids are incorporated into hormone-like substances that promote inflammation. If one replaces saturated fats with Omega-6 fats, total bad and good cholesterol levels may go down. Many health experts suggest that the ratio of Omega-6:Omega-3 fatty acids should be 4:1 for optimal health (most Americans get 14-20:1- a lot more than needed!). Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats are not listed separately on most food labels.
The other type of fats that are found in food, but aren’t natural, are:
Hydrogenated Fats (also known as Trans-Fats)
These are manufactured fats. They occur when hydrogen is added to a polyunsaturated fat to make it solid at room temperature. However, instead of having the qualities of a polyunsaturated fat, it takes on the traits of a saturated fat. Hydrogenated fats are found in many brands of margarine and vegetable shortening. A clue in determining a less healthy fat is when it is hard at room temperature; for example, stick margarine has more trans-fats than softer tub margarine. Now some companies are making “trans-fat free” margarine products. Beware of snack items, such as crackers, cookies, and chips- many contain hydrogenated fats because they allow for a longer shelf life than butter or other fats would.
Although too much can have negative results, fats are certainly required for good health. The positive is that fats:
- Carry flavors
- Impart desirable textures- smooth, creamy, and crispy, to name a few
- Give us a sense of fullness and satisfy hunger
- Are needed to absorb certain vitamins and plant chemicals
- Can contribute to one’s enjoyment of food
However, the calories in fat can add up fast, since they are more concentrated than in protein or carbohydrates. The effects of too much saturated fat in some people are negative health consequences, as mentioned above. The secret is not to stay at one extreme or another, but to try to be flexible in one’s fat intake. What does that mean? Balance your meals and snacks. If you find you had a high-fat meal (especially saturated fat), make the next one lower in fat. Or, if you choose a higher fat food, complement it with a lower fat one. We don’t have to have an “all or nothing” philosophy when it comes to fat. Finally, if you have trouble controlling your appetite or overcoming a weight loss plateau, take a look at some of the fat burners we offer at Iron Muscle Supplements.