– co-written by Toni Sicola and Alice Pennes
How often do you see food packaging that shouts from the shelf “Fat Free!” or “Cholesterol Free!”? We are bombarded with so much information about what is and isn’t healthy that it becomes hard to decipher what we should and shouldn’t eat. One of the most persistent (and false) health claims for the past 20 years is that fat and cholesterol are bad, and eating these things leads to disease as well as obesity.
In truth, fat and cholesterol are essential for our bodies to function properly. Every part of our body, from our complex brains to every last microscopic cell, relies on fats and cholesterol to stay healthy.
In this post I want to present you with a basic overview of the different types of fats and how they work in your body. This post isn’t about telling you what to eat but rather about demystifying the often confusing fat and cholesterol debate. After you read this, I encourage you to research more about what fat actually does in our bodies. My hope is that you gain some knowledge and become inspired to investigate your body and your food further.
Saturated fats can come from plants as well as animals. Coconut oil is an example of a saturated fat from a plant, that can actually aid in weight loss if used properly. It can be metabolized more quickly than other saturated fats, and is a great substitute for butter when doing high-heat cooking. It also contains a high proportion of lauric acid, which has antimicrobial properties and protects us from microscopic invaders.
When eating animal fats, both quality and quantity are top priorities. Any animal fat you eat, whether it’s skin of a chicken breast or the cream in your coffee, should be from an animal that has lived a life in the sun, eating the foods that their bodies are designed to eat and hasn’t been exposed to hormones, pesticides, or other chemicals. Healthy animals have healthy fat that can actually fuel your body and provide essential nutrition.
I’m not saying to eat a giant 22 oz steak every day, but the right animal fats in moderation are not only beneficial, but necessary to the proper function of our bodies.
The harmful effects of trans fats are virtually undisputed at this point. With studies showing elevated cancer rates, sexual dysfunction, and cardiovascular disease due to this type of fat, it is relatively safe to say that limiting it, if not completely eliminating it, is the way to go.
Unfortunately, it can sneak into our diets if we don’t read labels carefully. The FDA only requires that companies report trans fat content if it reaches a certain percentage per serving. Always read the ingredient list, and look for either partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated oils. If they are present, there is trans fat in the product, no matter what the nutrition panel says.
Mono and Polyunsaturated Fats:
Polyunsaturated vegetable and seed oils such as canola, soybean, and corn oils are typically highly processed. During refinement, they’re exposed to solvents and extremely high heat, often causing rancidity, which is then disguised by deodorizers and bleach. These chemicals cause inflammation in the body, which can lead to extra weight, heart disease, and even cancer. If cooking with these oils, ensure that you are buying expeller-pressed or cold-pressed versions, as they have not gone through this damaging refinement process. These are not the best types of oil to be eating.
Fish oil, flax oil, and walnut oil are also polyunsaturated fats. These fats contain Omega 3 essential fatty acids. Most of us have heard something about Omega 3s being good for our hearts, but they are also important components in brain function and hair and skin. Fish and flax oils are very sensitive to heat and light and should never be used as cooking oil. Instead they can be poured onto already cooked foods, used in salad dressings, or taken as supplements. These types of polyunsaturated fats are some of the best fats for us and are becoming less and less available in our foods, so you have to try a little harder to make sure you get enough of them into your diet. But your body with thank you for it!
Olive oil is a monounsaturated fat, primarily Omega 9, and is extremely nutritious (and delicious!). Extra virgin olive oil is extracted without the use of harsh chemicals, and is the most nutrient-dense form of olive oil. It should only be cooked with low to medium heat in order to preserve all of its healthy components.
The takeaway is this: Don’t be afraid of saturated fat or cholesterol. We need them, and they have gotten a bad rap over the years due to misconceptions of how they affect our health. Instead of avoiding these fats, stay away from the commercially processed vegetable and seed oils. And don’t forget about adding the oils rich in Omega 3 and Omega 9 into the mix for a well-rounded, healthy dose of fats.