For decades, the relationship between dietary fats has been at the center of our attention. We try to understand how saturated, unsaturated and trans fats affect our health. Are they harmful for me? And if so, which one – saturated or unsaturated? Are they the cause of obesity epidemic?
Did you notice eating has gotten very complicated and stressful? The debates over nutrition are literally everywhere. Should we worry about fat, or should we worry about carbohydrates, is the problem lack of fiber?
All these are attempts to understand what’s the problem in the western diet – that is the culprit. People like to figure out that one thing that’s the cause of all evil. Because then we can just adjust that one little thing and go on our merry way, but there is no magic food or pill to fix our problems.
And there’s no right or wrong food – it’s just about good or bad diet.
We’re all still figuring out how our bodies work on a macro and micro level – so we make things complicated.
Fats and Our Body
Despite the important roles that fats play in our bodies, this entire category of food was rejected for much of the 20th century.
This led to an enormous increase in the availability of fat free and reduced fat foods. But in spite of this, obesity rates continue to rise.
Today, we want to know where our food comes from and how it’s made. This is why the rising awareness about good fats and bad fats have allowed this important part of our food supply – fats, to make a comeback.
What’s the Difference Between Saturated vs. Unsaturated Fats?
Dietary fats can be divided into two families, the saturated and the unsaturated fats.
Saturated fats get their name from the fact that their fatty acids are saturated with hydrogen molecules. This means that they can lie flat and pack together densely. This is why saturated fats tend to be solids at room temperature.
Animal fats, like lard and butter, are good examples.
On the other hand, the fatty acids that make up unsaturated fats are kinked in places where double bonds between the carbon atoms cause the chains to be less saturated with hydrogen.
Meaning that these fatty acids don’t pack together as tightly. Therefore, most unsaturated fats in the liquid state at room temperature.
Omega 3 fatty acids are a special kind of unsaturated fatty acid, with double bonds in specific positions of the hydrocarbon chain. They’re found in high concentrations in fish oil, and also to some degree in nuts, flax seeds, and other vegetable oils.
Omega-3 fatty acids are the only kind of fatty acid that the human body can’t make. They’re essential for our health and they need to be consumed via the food we eat.
Man-made Unsaturated Fats – Trans Fats
Unsaturated fats can be naturally occurring like the fats found in olive oil, nuts and avocados. Or they can be man made or chemically manipulated to become unsaturated.
These are the fats found in some margarines and in refined oils that are often used for repeated cooling and reheating in deep frying machines like the ones used in many fast food restaurants.
The problem with chemically engineered unsaturated fats is that the chemical bonds between the carbon atoms are less stable, so they easily flip into a trans orientation, rather than a cis orientation.
And this is where we get the name trans fats.
Trans fats are problematic for our health because they increase the amount of LDL cholesterol in the blood and they lower the amount of HDL cholesterol, the good cholesterol in the blood.
In other words, trans fats promote to formation of arterial plaques, blockages and increase the risk of heart disease.
Saturated fats have also been shown to contribute to increases in LDL cholesterol, but they haven’t been shown to lower HDL cholesterol or to contribute to the development of arterial plaques as significantly as trans fats.
So, What’s the Bottom Line When It Comes to Foods That Contain Fat?
Fats have a very important roles in our bodies and health. They play part in brain development, energy storage, they protect us from cold and protect out internal organs. Don’t avoid eating fats, however pay attention to what kind of fats you’re consuming.
Probably the most sensible food recommendation is this.
Enjoy reasonable amounts of foods that contain mostly naturally occurring unsaturated fats like those found in olive oil, nuts and avocados.
Avoid all foods containing trans fats.
And limit your intake of foods like red meats that are high in saturated fats.
Did you find the information you were looking for? If you have questions, want to share your experience and chat on the topic, please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.