06 August 2009

All about fat

Polyunsaturated, transaturated, omega-3, monounsaturated, saturated... It's hard to keep up with what's what sometimes. Here's a brief overview of all the kinds of fats, what they do, and where to find them.

1. Monounsaturated: These are your plant-derived fats. I'm sure you're familiar with olive oil and its often touted heart health benefits. Well, that's because of the monounsaturated fats. All nuts (walnuts, almonds, etc.), avocados (as well as its oil), and some plant oils contain high levels of this type of fat. Studies show that they help lower your bad cholesterol levels and raise the healthy ones.

2. Polyunsaturated: These fats are mainly found in fish and grains, but are also in small quantities in animal meats (largely depending on the diet of the animal you are consuming). This group can be broken down into two separate entities: omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Our neanderthal brothers and sisters probably consumed these two fats in a roughly 1:1 ratio.

With a typical Western diet made up of tons of sugar and grains, this ratio can often be as high as 20:1 (omega-6:omega-3). All this omega-6 comes from the plant oils (peanut, corn, soybean, safflower, etc.) that are used in our processed food products. I'm sure you've read about the benefits of a fish oil supplement somewhere recently. These supplements attempt to return this ratio back to a more natural balance. Omega-6 fats are not unhealthy fats necessarily, but they can be quite harmful if your ratio is too far out of line. An omega-6 dominated body can lead to clogged arteries, arthritis in the joints, and cause insulin resistance. Though eating natural and whole foods will help get this ratio down quite a bit, I still continue to recommend a good fish oil supplement.

3. Saturated: I know what you are thinking. Avoid these right? Wrong. Saturated fat unfortunately has quite an unnecessary stigma attached to it. This is mostly found in animal products, but can be found in a few plant sources (chocolate and coconut immediately come to mind). Though saturated fat is known to increase LDL cholesterol slightly (the bad kind), it also increases HDL (the healthy kind). In addition, it helps support growth and healing by telling the body to increase production of testosterone. Females: Do not be afraid of this. You aren't going to look like the Hulk if you eat a little animal fat. Testosterone helps you turn fat into muscle, keeps your skin healthy and young, and prevents osteoporosis and other diseases.*

I'm still not suggesting that saturated fat is the most healthy fat of all, but 20-30g per day is a perfectly natural and healthy amount to be consuming.

4. Transaturated: Now this is the one you should be concerned with. In the 1950's, scientists learned how to to hydrogenate plant oils creating margarine as a "healthy" alternative to butter. Interestingly enough, by hydrogenating plant oils proved to be much worse than the saturated fat they were trying to replace.

Hydrogenation is a process that turns oil into a solid form at room temperature (ex. margarine). It is used in many processed foods as a way to extend shelf life and improve consistency. This man-made food product raises the bad cholesterol and lowers the good by significant amounts, clog arteries, and yet again... cause insulin resistance.


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