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Fat: Friend or Foe?

By Lavender July 31, 2009

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Healthy fats? What is that all about?
Fats are the demons in food—or wait, was it carbohydrates that are the doomsayers? Hmm. Most of us have heard the term “fad diets,” and most of us also have succumbed to the failures of these dietary recommendations. That is, these diets are only short-term solutions to more complex underlying problems with dietary habits. Dietary fat often is given the cold shoulder in these fad diets, and many people have been led to believe that fats are the culprit for most of the world’s health problems.

Well, let me introduce you to a little secret: Fat, in and of itself, is not so bad, and the type of fat consumed can result in drastically different health effects within the body. Let this be the last time I ever hear anyone talk about how a new fat-free diet is working wonders for his or her health.

First of all, fat is an essential component of the human body. Adipose (i.e., fat) tissue provides insulation, and acts as the protector of all organs by maintaining body temperature and absorbing shock. It serves as a storage area for fat-soluble toxins, effectively removing them from the bloodstream to prevent acute negative health effects. Last but not least, adipose tissue synthesizes and releases many adipokines (i.e., hormones and hormone-like compounds) that are important for normal body functioning.

Although adipose tissue plays these important roles, most of us have plenty (with extra) of it to serve these functions. We just need to change its composition a bit to obtain most of the beneficial effects, and avoid the negatives. Different types of dietary fat affect you differently.

Saturated/Trans Fats Thumbs Down

Saturated fats and trans fats are mostly responsible for fat’s bad reputation over the years. Both are associated with increased risks of just about every chronic disease, such as heart disease and cancer. Foods high in saturated fats include full-fat dairy products (milk, cheese, butter, etc.); many fatty meats (beef, pork); chocolate; and certain tropical plant oils, like coconut and palm kernel oils. Trans fats tend to be abundant in fried and baked goods, as well as anything containing partially hydrogenated vegetable oils in the ingredients list.

Unsaturated Fats Thumbs Up

In general, unsaturated fats, including both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated varieties, are healthier than saturated and trans fats. In fact, many unsaturated fats have been associated with improved blood lipid and cholesterol levels, effectively reducing the risk of heart disease and other chronic diseases. Foods rich in unsaturated fats include many types of plant oils, nuts/seeds, and avocados.

Omega-3 Fats Three Thumbs Up

Omega-3 fats, specific types of polyunsaturated fats, are nutritional powerhouses. They aid in reducing inflammation (associated with many chronic diseases). They are thought to help reduce the risk of many types of health complications, such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and arthritis. Omega-3 fats also aid in brain and immune functioning. They are rich in fatty fish (salmon, tuna, etc.) and fish oils, flax seeds, walnuts, and meats/animal products from grass-fed animals. Shoot for more omega-3 fats in your diet on a daily (preferably) or weekly basis.

Conjugated Linoleic Acid Two Thumbs Up

Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) is actually a trans fat. However, its effects on health are very different from other trans fats. CLA is still under active research, but it appears to reduce visceral adiposity (the bad stuff surrounding your abdominal organs), and promote lean tissue growth, such as muscle. In addition, it has been associated with potent antioxidant properties, and may help ward off cancer. CLA can be found mainly in grass-fed animal products like meat, eggs, and dairy.

Several years of education led me to the conclusion of everything in moderation—for the most part, you never can go wrong with that. I am convinced that broccoli would give you cancer if you ate enough of it. Just because a fat is deemed unhealthy does not mean it should be removed completely from the diet, nor just because a fat is considered a dietary savior should it be eaten in excess. Moderation is key.

A balanced diet with a variety of healthy fat sources (grass-fed animal products, fish, nuts/seeds, nut/seed butters, avocados, olive oil) and limited saturated/trans fat sources (non-grass-fed animal products, fried foods, baked goods, chocolate) is perfect regardless of your weight and/or health goals. Don’t forget that dietary fat is needed to absorb those all-important fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins D, E, K, and A).

Your body needs dietary fat to function effectively. You certainly would be better off if you selected more beneficial fats, which the body is able to put to good use—improving your health.

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