Fat. No one wants to think about it, few know it’s role, and many are suffering from two much of it in their bodies. But is fat all bad? I wanted to take a closer look at this complex macronutrient.
What even is fat? Fat is made up of carbon and hydrogen chains, and alterations to these chains result in different types of fat. Contrary to what you may think, fat is essential for keeping our body running in working order: it provides energy stores, develops and grows our brain tissue, keeps us insulated, makes up part of our cell membranes, and is essential for absorbing certain vitamins and minerals. However, there are some fats that are better for us than others, so let’s break it down:
Saturated fats have chains that are tightly packed; that is, each carbon has a hydrogen atom, thus making the chain saturated. These fats are characterized by being solid at room temperature, and common examples include dairy products, meat fats, and coconut oil. Saturated fats have taken a tough blow from the media, and most of us have grown up with the assumption that all saturated fats are bad, which is not necessarily true. Saturated fats can increase our LDL cholesterol levels (Low-Density Lipoproteins). LDLs and HDLs (the other kind: High-Density Lipoproteins) are the protein carriers for cholesterol, a naturally occurring, waxy substance that does a variety of good thing for our bodies including the production of Vitamin D and acting as a temporary bandage at sites of inflammation. However, LDLs in excess can causes blockages in the arteries, which is bad news. Although saturated fats in moderation can be beneficial.
Unsaturated fat chains are missing some hydrogen atoms, so their chains are not saturated. These fats are liquid (or very soft) at room temperature, and examples include things like avocado, nuts, and canola, sunflower, and olive oil. Unsaturated fats are considered “good fats,” because they promote the production of HDL cholesterol.
Trans fats are not natural. And I’m not just saying this; humans manufacture these fats by artificially injecting hydrogen atoms into a fat chain, a process known as hydrogenation. Trans fats increased in popularity when fast and processed foods became popular, because trans fats are used to increase a food’s shelf life. Remember the story of the Twinkie under the bed? If you leave a Twinkie or another heavily processed food under your bed for a few years and then look at it, the food will probably look exactly the same. You cannot do this with an apple, right? Fruits and vegetables will begin to rot in just a few days, thus they have an expiration date that is much much shorter. And we like this rotting process! This is what happens in our body and allows the food to be broken down and digested properly. Trans fats increase LDLs and decrease HDLs, so basically they do nothing for our health.
Omegas are also an important type of fat to discuss. Omega-3s are often known as the “really good fats” in my family. Omega-3s are anti-inflamatory, and promote heart health. Common examples include oily fish and flaxseed. But don’t be confused by Omega-6s, which are not the same thing! Omega-6s inflame tissue, and are found in many processed foods.
So what is the fuss over fat really about? In my class, my professor told us about the man who we can probably blame for our brainwashed understanding of fat. In the 1960s, Ancel Keys conducted the Seven Country Study, in which he looked at different countries and their diets, trying to link high fat intake and cholesterol with cardio vascular disease. Unfortunately for us, Keys was tricky, because actually more like twenty-two counties were examined, but only seven fit in with his hypothesis. The study shocked people though, and that’s when food industries decided to take fat out of everything, prompting the “low fat” advertising boom. However, even without as much fat in their diets, Americans were just as sick as ever. But this idea that fat is bad continues even to this day. I know that in my own life, I have never thought of fat as a positive thing in food, or had any idea what was meant by “unsaturated” vs. “saturated” so I suppose that is why this subject is so interesting to me. The bottom line: not all fats are created equal, fat is vital for our body’s function, and it’s all about moderation and balance.