Facts on Fat


Does trying to make sense of what is really true in the world of diet and nutrition make your head spin? You are not alone. Let’s focus on fat, maligned as a food and body part. I grew up in the fat-free era. Despite the fact that the United States has cut fat consumption by as much as 40 percent in the past 30 years, we have seen obesity rates double. Clearly, we’ve got something wrong.

Body fat is more than padding for the hips and belly. It’s actually an organ that is part of the endocrine system. It enables puberty and reproduction, strengthens bones and immunity and boosts brain size.

The adage of “what goes through your lips, ends up on your hips” doesn’t work because body fat composition is more of a complex chemistry experiment than a bank account. Sleep, stress, movement and food intake are all important pieces of that chemistry equation.

Dietary fat is essential for the digestion of fat-soluble vitamins, like A, D, E and K. Fat also keeps us full and satisfied for longer time periods. That’s why a breakfast of bacon and eggs sticks to your ribs longer than toast or cereal.

There are many types of dietary fat, which can add to the confusion. We can break it down like this:

Trans Fat:

Trans fats, or trans-unsaturated fatty acids, trans fatty acids, are a type of unsaturated fat uncommon in nature but are produced industrially from vegetable fats to use in margarine, processed food, and fried fast food starting in the 1950s. Vegetable oil is heated to high temperatures to induce hydrogenation. As a result of this heating process, the oil is stable and is used as a preservative to increase shelf life in common treats like baked goods, chips, crackers, and fried foods. Thankfully, trans fat has been banned in the production of food, though small amounts under 1 gram persist and can add up. Trans fat has been shown to raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol and decrease your HDL (healthy) cholesterol.

Saturated Fat:

Probably the biggest controversy in today’s argument against fat. The biggest food trend high in saturated fat is coconut oil. Coconut oil is very high in saturated fat (almost 90%). Consuming large amounts of saturated fat in the diet can raise LDL cholesterol. However, coconut oil also raises HDL cholesterol. To muddy the waters even more, there is a new debate about the exact role of cholesterol in heart health.

Coconut oil and nuts are high in saturated fat but have health benefits that put the equation on a positive balance. Fatty meats and dark meat chicken are also high in saturated fat. The best approach is to consume these in moderation.

Monounsaturated Fat:

When consumed in moderation, monounsaturated fats have been shown to lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol, which helps reduce the risk of heart disease. Sources include avocados, nut butter, and olive oil.

Polyunsaturated Fat:

There are two types of polyunsaturated fats, omega-3 (linoleic acid) and omega-6 (linoleic acid). Omega-3 fats are noted for their role in brain function, growth, and development. Salmon, walnuts, and flaxseed are excellent sources of omega-3 fats.

Omega-6 fats are more prevalent in the average American’s diet than omega-3 fats. While omega-6 has some role in lowering cholesterol, research suggests that an excess amount of omega-6 fats can actually increase cardiovascular disease. Common sources of omega-6 include oils, salad dressings, nuts, and pork.

So, is fat a friend or foe? The bottom line is we are all individuals with unique metabolisms, meaning our chemistry equations are different. Healthy fats such as avocado, nuts, seafood and some oils, including coconut oil, are beneficial for overall health. Consume these in moderation daily. We should avoid consumption of “bad fats,” especially trans-fat, found in snack foods, boxed meals, and processed meats. Always research and talk to your doctor.

For more fat facts, many interesting books explore fat from a scientific and nutritional perspective. Check out The Secret Life of Fat by biochemist and former dieter Sylvia Tara; Eat Fat, Get Thin by Dr. Mark Hyman, president of the Institute for Functional Medicine; and Fat for Fuel by Dr. Joseph Mercola.

Dr Sue

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