We've all heard of good fats and bad fats, the primary good fats being mono and polyunsaturated fats and the primary bad one being trans fats (I'll get to saturated fats later). We know good fats are heart healthy and trans fats, in any amount, are bad for us. But do any of us know the science behind why this is so?
First, we need to know exactly what a fat is. In its simplest form, it is a fatty acid, and the joining of three fatty acids forms a triglyceride, which is what is found in foods and the stores of fat found in our bodies. When our bodies digest these triglycerides, they get broken down into fatty acids and glycerol. These molecules then get used in various ways by our bodies, which will be mentioned later in this article (Berardi, p. 152).
Fat can be found in many foods, whether they are abundant, such as the fats in meat, or in trace amounts, like the fats found in grapes. It is a macronutrient, meaning it is needed in abundance in order for optimum functioning of our bodies. It is also a sorely misunderstood nutrient. While recent research has attempted to restore the reputation of this nutrient, there is little understanding of just what goes on when we consume these fats. In fact, I realized this when I was speaking to a co-worker and patient at my PT clinic about dietary fats, with both of them expressing surprise when I revealed exactly what fats can do to the very cells of our bodies. Their surprise is what prompted me to write this. After all, we hear so much about heart healthy fats, but we don't even understand just why they're healthy. We only know the bad ones can raise cholesterol, clog arteries, and increase the risk for heart disease.
Let's look at the good things fats do for us:
Now let's look more deeply into the different types of fats.
Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are unlike saturated fats because they are typically liquid at room temperature--think of vegetable oils. As their prefixes imply, they are composed of one or many unsaturated chemical bonds. Saturated fats, on the other hand, are typically solid at room temperature--think of cheese. Last, you have trans fats, which can occur naturally, but are mostly formed through industrial fat processing to make food products last longer (p. 157). As you can tell, they get their names because of their chemical configurations.
Despite what you may have heard, including saturated fats in the diet is an important component for overall health. It is true that when consumed in excess, saturated fats can increase one's risk for heart disease; however, one need not eliminate these fats from the diet. In fact, certain types of saturated fats may actually lower LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol), such as stearic acid, a "saturated fat found in cocoa butter and beef" (p. 154). People who generally consume saturated fats in excess are also consuming too much refined carbohydrates; however, by minimizing refined carbohydrates and including a good dose of unsaturated fats, saturated fats are perfectly fine in the diet (p. 155).
Not only is it important to balance saturated fat and unsaturated fat intake, but the balance among unsaturated fats, those being omega-6 and omega-3, is also crucial. Too much omega-6 can cause excess inflammation. Inflammation, under certain circumstances such as injury, is important for the body, so it is necessary to control one's intake of omega-6. Much of our North American diet includes an excess of omega-6 fats, so it's important to mention why omega-3 fats are crucial. These fats help to keep our cell membranes more fluid, which in turn makes for easier transmission of things like serotonin and increased insulin sensitivity. As a result, omega-3's can actually help with weight loss because hormones have ane easier time interacting with the fluid membranes of our cells (p. 156).
Our last fats are trans fats, and these are not good in any amount. In fact, rather than making our cell membranes more fluid, they instead make them more rigid, causing our cells to more tightly pack together, which in turn increases our risk for coronary heart disease and decreases hormone transmission. Trans fats consumed from just one meal also have an immediate impact on blood vessel function and elasticity. While trans fats can occur naturally in the diet, as long as one is consuming primarily whole, unprocessed foods, consuming too many trans fats is nearly impossible (p. 157).
Overall, optimum health depends on a good balance of fats. This balance is easily obtained through a diet of mostly whole, unprocessed foods.
Dietary fats explained. (2014). In Medline Plus. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000104.htm
Berardi, John, & Ansdrews, Ryan. (2016). The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition. Precision Nutrition.
Saturated Fats. (2016). In American Heart Association. Retrieved from http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Nutrition/Saturated-Fats_UCM_301110_Article.jsp#.V8OYfzWqFhY
What are Polyunsaturated and Monounsaturated Fats? (2014). In Your Guide to Diet & Diabetes. Retrieved from http://extension.illinois.edu/diabetes2/subsection.cfm?SubSectionID=46
ACE Certified Personal Trainer, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, nutrition coach, young adult author, moody ballerina.
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The views expressed on this blog are entirely my own. Any advice I offer is not to be taken as medical advice. If you think you have contraindications to exercise, please see your physician before implementing any sample workout plans I present on this blog.
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