Good Fats vs Bad Fats for Good Health1
Good fats: going beyond unsaturated fats
In the battle of good fats vs bad fats, people often have a very black and white idea of which fats belong to each side. Typically, the perception is that good fats include anything of the unsaturated variety. Fish oil and flax seed oil in particular have been some of the most popular fat source supplements in the past ten years after studies conducted on Omega-3 fatty acids showed that they had a broad range of health benefits. Omega-3 fatty acids are one of those all-important polyunsaturated fats, in the same family as fats found in walnuts, soybean oil, and canola oil. Monounsaturated fats are found in sources including extra virgin olive oil, avocados, and various nuts like almonds. One caution though: unsaturated fats and fragile molecules, so choose quality sources of these fats to avoid rancid or oxidized fats. Storing them in the fridge will help preserve them, and contrary to popular belief – you’ll want to keep your olive oil for dressings and sauces and not for cooking.
More recently, however, people have taken up the mantle of paleo eating, which is a lifestyle that embraces eating more natural and unprocessed foods. The rise of paleo eating has also seen a rise in the amount of bacon being sold.
Bacon, butter & eggs: Saturated fats aren’t the super villains
People familiar with the paleo lifestyle will likely know that bacon is considered the quintessential paleo delicacy. But outsiders usually scratch their heads in wonderment at seeing the sheer amount of bacon that a typical paleo follower eats. After all, bacon and eggs were both condemned by the nutritional community for a long time due to their high fat content, and especially those saturated fats. So how is bacon a good fat source?
The answer is that saturated fats aren’t the super villains of the story. Saturated fats play a role in many vital functions of the body including cell membrane maintenance, skeletal strength and resilience, immune system resistance, and metabolism of fatty acids among other functions. Contrary to popular belief, saturated fats also assist in heart health by providing the heart with a reservoir of readily available energy in times of stress or fatigue.
Likewise, butter is a paleo staple. Butter is known for being high in saturated fats, and for a long time it was also condemned as a negative influence on high levels of arterial damage. Butter, however, contains key vitamins such as vitamin A, vitamin K, vitamin D, and vitamin E. Several of these account for the body’s ability to repair itself, and vitamin E in particular plays a huge part in keeping skin young and vibrant. But these vitamins were never in question when it comes to nutritional benefits; saturated fats were mistakenly considered the biggest downside to butter consumption.
Cholesterol isn’t the bad guy (but damaged cholesterol is a different story)
So where did saturated fats get their awful reputation? Cholesterol was long thought to be the necessary evil that accumulated in the arteries of those who indulged in delicious foods rich in saturated fats. If people are consuming increased amounts of saturated fats, then why aren’t they all dropping like flies to higher rates of heart disease? As it turns out, cholesterol doesn’t deserve the bum rap that it usually receives either. Cholesterol is not responsible for arterial buildup and subsequent heart disease, at least not directly. Arterial buildup is caused by damaged cholesterol. Damaged cholesterol is created when normal cholesterol is heated to a level that causes it to change shape and therefore function.
Cholesterol in its undamaged state, much like saturated fat, serves quite a few useful purposes in the human body ranging from serotonin production to skeletal and nervous system maintenance. Cholesterol is critical to continuing health, but damaged cholesterol poses an obvious problem. The best way to avoid damaged cholesterol is to steer clear of processed foods such as deli meats, sausages, and baked goods, which, in addition to containing heaps of processed ingredients, also typically contain trans fats.
The real bad guys, unmasked: trans fats and hydrogenated fats
These trans fats, also known as hydrogenated fats, are the real bad guys in the fat wars. Hydrogenated fats are formed when companies take lower quality oils and super heat them during mixing. Remember that part about cholesterol being helpful so long as it isn’t heated? Hydrogenated fats are especially harmful when eaten in conjunction with refined sugar products, like those wicked snack cakes that the adorable Little Debbie keeps trying to push on people. Products like these encourage heart disease, and people often have no clue how to bring their cholesterol numbers back down.
The best way to do so is to avoid those snack cakes and refined sugars and instead turn to a diet emphasizing whole food sources that are nutrient dense. In particular, foods high in vitamins B6 and B12 as well as iodine are often helpful in fending off high levels of cholesterol that may cause arterial blockage. In essence, the idea is not to avoid these natural foods and fat sources which are highly beneficial but to limit or even completely eliminate those treats that cause so many arterial problems. Whole foods mean a healthy lifestyle, and a healthy lifestyle means living wholly.
Photo credit: Rock-em Sock-em by Ariel Waldman