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The skinny on fats: good versus bad

By in Culture


Healthy polyunsaturated fats can be found in avocados.
Healthy polyunsaturated fats can be found in avocados.

In our ever-changing society I find it difficult to keep up with what is supposed to be ‘good’ and what is ‘bad.’

In particular, which types of fat are good for you and which are bad.

Straight up, fats have a bad reputation. They have had a bad name for years. It’s gotten to a point now that anything containing more than a gram or two of fat is considered evil.

This attitude is not unfounded. A diet high in fat can be the breeding ground for heart disease. I am, however, of the belief that anything that naturally tastes as good as coconut oil, butter or cashews can’t be that bad for me.

Determined as I am to prove that not all fats are created equal, I set to research. I enlisted the help of Noelle Tourney, an accredited dietitian with a bachelor’s in nutrition from the U of S and who found Noelle Tourney Nutrition and Wellness Consulting.

When I asked Tourney a series of questions based on my theory that a little fat goes a long way, she replied that what she typically tells her clients is that there are three classifications of fats: “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” Sounds delightful.

In her opinion ugly fats should be avoided, bad fats should be consumed lightly and good fats should be made a part of your daily eating habits.

The ugly fats she’s referring to are trans fats. “Most trans fat is made from a chemical process known as ‘partial hydrogenation,’” Tourney said. “This is when liquid oil is made into solid fat.”

What makes trans fats so bad for you is that trans fats have been proven to raise LDL (low-density lipoprotein) and lower HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol levels.

“Low-HDL and high-LDL are both risk factors for heart disease,” Tourney said. Most foods including but not limited to pastries, convenience foods and commercially-fried foods contain trans fats. If these are a part of your diet and you want to avoid trans fats, you should probably ditch them.

The bad fats, or saturated fats, are those that are typically found in animal products like meat (excluding fish), dairy products and coconut, palm and palm kernel oils.

“Saturated fat has been shown to raise LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol level,” Tourney said. However, by choosing meat and dairy products with less fat, you can limit the amount of saturated fat in your diet.

Though coconut oil contains saturated fats, recent research suggests that coconut oil can actually be benificial to your overall health.

“Our bodies metabolize the fat from coconuts differently because it is high in something called medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). MCTs are more easily processed by our bodies because they are transported directly from the intestines to the liver, where they are burned as fuel,” Tourney said.

“This has given coconut oil the reputation of promoting weight loss. Unfortunately, there are few studies done on coconut oil and weight loss and significant benefits have not yet been seen,” she said. Coconut oil is also known to contain antioxidants and other nutrients.

The lesson here is that not all saturated fats are created equal, and some may actually be beneficial to you. That said, Tourney notes that saturated fats should be kept to less than 10 per cent of your caloric intake, so save the butter for when you really want it.

As far as the ‘good’ fats are concerned, Tourney recommends polyunsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats are particularly good as they are found to reduce the risk of heart disease and lower LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol levels. These fats can be found in vegetable and olive oils as well as fats from fish, nuts and avocados. Fatty fish such as herring, salmon and trout, nuts like cashews, pecans and almonds, as well as seeds all contain polyunsaturated fats and should be a part of your diet.

Although it’s unwise to gorge on a bag of almonds, no matter how good the fat is for you, a little fat can go a long way in terms of your health. Just as long as your fat comes from natural products rather than a chemically manufactured ingredient such as hydrogenated margarine. Keep it simple. Nature knows how to feed us.

Photo: You As A Machine/Flickr

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