Healthy fats are essential to good health
The human body uses fatty acids to do everything from building cell membranes to performing key functions in the brain, eyes, and lungs. The functions of fats include:
- Brain – Fats compose 60% of the brain and are essential to brain function, including learning abilities, memory retention and moods. Fats are especially important for pregnant women, since they are integral to fetal brain development.
- Cells – Fatty acids help your cells stay moveable and flexible, as well as being responsible for building cell membranes.
- Heart – 60% of our heart’s energy comes from burning fats. Specific fats are also used to help keep the heart beating in a regular rhythm.
- Nerves – Fats compose the material that insulates and protects the nerves, isolating electrical impulses and speeding their transmission.
- Lungs – Lung surfactant, which requires a high concentration of saturated fats, enables the lungs to work and keeps them from collapsing.
- Eyes – Fats are essential to eye function.
- Digestion – Fats in a meal slow down the digestion process so the body has more time to absorb nutrients. Fats help provide a constant level of energy and also keep the body satiated for longer periods of time. Fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) can only be absorbed if fat is present.
- Organs – Fats cushion and protect your internal organs.
- Immune System –Some fats ease inflammation, helping your metabolism and immune system stay healthy and functioning.
Understanding the “bad” fats
Damaged fat: When good fats turn bad
A good fat can become bad if it gets damaged by heat, light or oxygen. Poly-unsaturated fats are the most fragile. Oils that are high in poly-unsaturated fats (such as flax seed oil) must be refrigerated and kept in a dark container. Cooking with these oils also damages the fats. Never use oils, seeds or nuts after they begin to smell or taste rank or bitter.
The worst fats: Trans fats (trans-fatty acids)
A trans fat is a normal fat molecule that has been twisted and deformed during a process called hydrogenation. During this process, liquid vegetable oil is heated and combined with hydrogen gas. No amount of these trans fats is healthy – if your diet doesn’t contain enough good fat, your body will use the deformed trans fats instead, which could possibly contribute to major health risks from heart disease to cancer.
So why are trans fatty acids (TFAs) so prevalent in commercial foods? Partially hydrogenated oils (what comes out of the hydrogenation process) are more stable (less likely to spoil), can be transported more easily, and can withstand repeated heating, which makes them perfect for frying up those French fries and burgers at your favorite fast food establishment.
Trans fats may be found in foods like:
- Baked goods – cookies, crackers, cakes, muffins, pie crusts, pizza dough, and some breads like hamburger buns
- Fried foods – doughnuts, French fries, fried chicken including chicken nuggets, and hard taco shells
- Snack foods – potato, corn, and tortilla chips; candy; packaged or microwave popcorn.
- Solid fats – stick margarine and semi-solid vegetable shortening.
- Pre-mixed products – cake mix, pancake mix, and chocolate drink mix.
TFAs tend to raise total LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and lower HDL (good cholesterol). This can contribute to major health problems, from heart disease to cancer. No amount of trans fat is healthy, and should be kept below 1 percent of your total calories.
Fat-friendly lifestyle tips: Out with the bad, in with the good
Okay, so you realize you need to avoid saturated fat and trans fat… but how do you get the healthy monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and omega-3 fats everyone keeps talking about?
- Dress your own salad. Commercial salad dressings are often high in saturated fat, unhealthy chemicals, and made with inferior, overly-processed, damaged oils. Create your own dressings with high-quality, cold-pressed olive oil, flaxseed oil or sesame oil and your favorite herbs.
- What’s better: butter or margarine? Both have good and bad points. With margarine, choose the soft-tub versions, and make sure the product has zero grams trans fats and no partially hydrogenated oils. Regardless of whether you choose butter or margarine, use it in moderation and avoid adding it to other foods. Olive oil is a healthier substitute.
- The meat of the matter. Beef, pork, lamb, and dairy products are high in saturated fat. Reduce your consumption of these foods. When you do eat them, choose low-fat milk and lower-fat cheeses like mozzerella whenever possible; enjoy full-fat dairy in moderation. Go for lean cuts of meat, and stick to white meat, which has less saturated fat.
- Don’t go no-fat, go good fat. If you are concerned about your weight or heart health, rather than avoiding fat in your diet, try replacing all the bad fats with good fats. This might mean replacing some of the meat you eat with beans and legumes, and using vegetable oils rather than tropical oils, which tend to contain more saturated fats.
- Ask what type of oil your food is cooked in. When eating out, ask your server or counter person what type of oil they use in their cooking. If it’s partially-hydrogenated oil, run the other way. Otherwise, see if you can request your food to be prepared using olive oil, which most restaurants have in stock.