There seems to be a lot of confusion as to whether fat is good or bad for you. After all, with the word “fat” having such a negative connotation, why would anyone think it can be good? The truth is, fats are much more complex than to be labeled in such simple terms as either good or bad.
Fats are categorized into 4 main types: saturated fats, trans fats, monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats. At the chemical level, they are all made up of a chain of carbon atoms bonded to hydrogen atoms. Fats differ from each other by the length and shape of their carbon chains and the number of hydrogen atoms connected to the carbon atoms. These seemingly slight differences translate into significant effects on our health. Current knowledge of the subject tells us that trans fats are the worst for health, unsaturated fats the best, and saturated fats fall somewhere in between.
Your body needs fat from food as it is a major source of energy; helps absorb vitamins and minerals; and is essential for blood clotting, muscle movement, and inflammation. So if fat is so essential, how did it get the reputation of being so bad?
The fat-shaming started in the 1950s when researchers found that those who consumed a diet containing less saturated fat appeared to be healthier than their counterparts who consumed more saturated fat. Health officials then began warning the public that eating too much food containing saturated fat could lead to heart disease. Concern over this specific type of fat turned into a generalized panic about all types of fat. By the 1980s, official US dietary guidelines, which weren’t all that scientifically grounded, advised Americans to decrease their total fat intake. Today, health-conscious consumers are often drawn to food products that bear “low-fat” on the label.
This “low-fat” diet craze triggered a few unintentional harmful consequences. To please consumers, some food manufacturers replaced the fat in their products with sugar and refined carbohydrates and sold them as “healthy alternatives.” Unfortunately, these added ingredients turned out to be just as bad as the fat. They also replaced the saturated fat in their products with trans fat (think about the switch from butter to margarine). This turned out to be even more damaging as it is now known that trans fat is harmful for the body.
Instead of staying away from fat completely, we now know that we just have to be careful to eat the right fats and stay away from others. Most scientists agree that unsaturated (both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) fat appears to do the least damage and is actually good for the body. Monounsaturated fat is found in foods such as olive oil, avocados, and almonds. Polyunsaturated fat can be found in fish, sunflowers, and walnuts. These fats have been found to decrease bad (low-density lipoprotein [LDL]) cholesterol in the blood and either maintain or raise the amount of good (high-density lipoprotein [HDL]) cholesterol. They also help keep our skin and hair healthy.
Trans fats, on the other hand, raise LDL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol. They appear naturally in some foods; however, industrially produced trans fats are the ones to avoid. They are made when vegetable oil goes through hydrogenation, which is accomplished by adding hydrogen to liquid oil to increase its solidity. These extremely harmful fats are usually found in processed and packaged food. This can range from baked goods to fried foods.
The research isn’t so clear cut when it comes to saturated fat. Although it has been found to increase LDL cholesterol (the bad), the other components of the food you eat might be just as good for you. But even with the uncertainty, most physicians will recommend swapping out saturated fat for unsaturated fat in your diet. The best bet is to put into your body food that comes from nature. The less it is handled, the better.
- Belluz J. Is eating fat really bad for you? Here’s what the science says. Vox website. November 24, 2015. http://www.vox.com/2015/11/24/9782098/dietary-fat-saturated-fat-good-or-bad. Accessed December 22, 2015.
- Rodriguez D. The skinny on fat. Everyday Health website. March 27, 2013. http://www.everydayhealth.com/diet-nutrition/101/nutrition-basics/skinny-on-fat.aspx. Accessed December 22, 2015.
- Zelman K. The skinny on fat: good fats vs. bad fats. WebMD website. November 1, 2007. http://www.webmd.com/diet/obesity/skinny-fat-good-fats-bad-fats. Accessed December 22, 2015.