The Skinny on Fats
The 80’s will be remembered for a lot of things. Big hair, Spandex, and horrible makeup jobs are a few things that immediately come to mind for me. The 80’s can also be remembered as the decade when Americans started to pay closer attention to their health, weight, and fitness. Steroids ran rampant, places such as Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig grew in popularity, and, with hopes of slimming their collective figures, America became obsessed with the fat-free trend. Food companies recognized this “fat phobia” and flooded the market with fat-free foodstuffs ranging from cookies to chips, many of which are still produced today. On the surface this may seem all well and good, but any gourmet can tell you that fat in food equals flavor and if these companies remove fat, they have to replace it with something to keep the food palatable. For food companies the answer is easy, replace the fat with sugar and other simple carbohydrates. Let me give you an example; next time you are at the supermarket look at the difference between the reduced fat and regular peanut butter. You will see that the regular peanut butter has more fat (obviously), but you will also notice that the reduced fat has more carbohydrates and sugar. Swapping fats for sugar makes zero sense and it can be argued that altering food in this way is actually fueling America’s obesity epidemic.
What can’t be argued however is that fat is a vital and essential part of our diet. Fats are integral to forming the very cells that make up our entire body. Fats are also needed to produce various hormones, to absorb essential vitamins (A, D, E, K), and to provide high-density energy to the body. A diet that is deficient in the needed amount of fat can experience all sorts of ill effects ranging from hair, skin, and nail conditions to mental and hormonal disturbances.
We know that fats can be good, but we also know all too well that fats can be bad. There is a mountain of evidence that links certain high-fat diets to heart attacks, cancers, and diabetes. Not all fats contribute to these diseases so it is important that we know what fats we should consume and what fats we should avoid.
Polyunsaturated fats are important because they can help to lower cholesterol. However they lower all forms of your cholesterol including HDLs, which is considered your “good” cholesterol. Polyunsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. A variety of oils contain polyunsaturated fats including cottonseed and corn oils. Seafood is a good source of polyunsaturated fats as well as being high in protein.
Monounsaturated fats will also help lower blood cholesterol, but unlike polyunsaturated fats, they do not lower HDL-cholesterol. Monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and there are many natural foods that are high in monounsaturated fats including: olives, olive oil, canola oil, peanuts, peanut oil, almonds, pecans, hazelnuts, cashew nuts, macadamia nuts, pistachio nuts, and avocados.
Saturated fats come mainly from animal products but are also found in tropical plant oils such a coconut and palm oil. Saturated fats are usually solid or firm at room temperature. Diets which are heavy in consumption of saturated fats have been linked with many diseases including heart disease. Stay away from tropical oils and fatty cuts of meats including beef, pork, and go easy on the egg yolks.
Trans fatty acids or trans fat is a byproduct of hydrogenation, a process where unsaturated fats are combined with hydrogen to make them more saturated and thus more stable at room temp. Trans fats are the bad fats that I mentioned earlier as they raise your body’s cholesterol levels and increase your risk of disease. Many fast foods and processed food are high in trans fat to aid in prolonging shelf life. In short consume little to no trans fat.
Recommended Daily Intake
While individual needs for daily fat intake can vary drastically, the following are general recommendations that should suffice for your average population: 1) daily fat intake should be about 30% of your diet. 2) Around 10% should be from saturated sources 3) with the remaining 20% coming from unsaturated sources. If you have special considerations such as the need to compete in high level athletics or a condition such as high cholesterol you may want to consult with your physician or a registered dietician for more specific guidelines.
Remember to get the majority of your fats from whole food sources while avoiding foods high in saturated fats. Avoid trans fats at all costs. Not only will having a diet made of the proper ratios of fats make you healthier, but it will also make you feel fuller longer between meals to help avoid overeating. It’s time for America to get over this phobia and embrace fat as an ally in the battle for good health.