The Skinny About Fat

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“Saturated,” “medium-chain fatty acid,” “healthy versus unhealthy”—the list of terms attached to the fats in our food is extensive. So is the discussion. You might see a new report showing that a certain type of fat is good for you, followed closely by a different report insisting that same fat is dangerous. Confusing!

It’s not wobbly science. There’s just a lot of complexity in the chemistry of fat. New discoveries—and new questions—are surfacing all the time.

Unfortunately, that means keeping up can be pretty hard for the rest of us. But let’s take a shortcut around some of the complex questions concerning fat and skip to the “news you can use.”

Let’s start with a snapshot of the two broadest categories of dietary fat.

Saturated fats

The Skinny About Fat

What: At room temperature, saturated fats tend to remain solid. They are found mostly in animal products such as meats, cheese, and lard. Coconut and palm oils are exceptions—they have lots of saturated fat but come from plants.

The good: Saturated fats tend to be more heat stable than some other fats, which makes them suitable for cooking. They are frequently the best choice for baking. They’re also among the fats our bodies process most easily.

The caveat: Saturated fats have been linked to cholesterol in the past, though more recent research finds no correlation. The old advice to avoid all saturated fats has been questioned. In fact, some nutrition professionals now advise that a sensible amount of saturated fat is a good idea—with emphasis, of course, on “sensible.” Fats of all kinds are extremely calorie dense.

Unsaturated fats (both mono- and poly-)

The Skinny About Fat
What
: Unsaturated fats usually remain in liquid form. Common sources of unsaturated fat include nuts, fish, seeds, and certain fruits and vegetables.

The good: Unsaturated fats tend to be lightly flavored. One group, the monounsaturated fats, is also very easy for the body to use and is a good choice for replacing excess saturated fat—for example, you might pan-cook a chicken breast with olive oil (mostly monounsaturated) instead of butter (mostly saturated).

The caveat: Not all unsaturated fats are created equal. Buckle up, because here’s one of the areas where fats and oils get, well, slippery.

Raise your hand if you’ve heard a lot of recent buzz about omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. (My hand is up, too.) Our bodies can’t make these important compounds, so we have to eat them instead.

But thinking of them as a pair might be a mistake. We need far less omega-6 than we do omega-3.Moreover, omega-6 is in more foods, in greater amounts, so many of us get plenty to begin with.

Some authorities estimate the typical American consumes between six and 40 times the necessary amount of omega-6. It’s not just “too much fat.” Recent studies suggest that this omega-6 overload stimulates inflammation, which in turn can trigger problems that range from minor chronic pain to serious metabolic disorders.

Here are a few tips for putting a better balance of fats on your plate:

  • Eat fish or shellfish in two or three meals per week. These foods provide excellent amounts of omega-3 fatty acids without piling on excess omega-6. Some of the best choices are salmon, mackerel, tuna, and herring. Other sources of omega-3s include sprouted radish; flax, hemp, or chia seeds; and walnuts. Enjoying a smoothie or salad? Add a little flaxseed oil for a quick, easy omega-3 boost.
  • Read labels meaningfully. Total fat content isn’t as important as the fat breakdown—and if you see any trans fat, step away! “Trans” means that the fat’s chemical structure has been altered by processing. The result is an unnatural fat that not only packs empty calories but which studies show to be damaging.
  • Choose the right fat for the job. Some fats change in scary ways when exposed to the heat of cooking. If you want an oil for your salad, smoothie, or any dish that’s raw or unheated, extra-virgin olive, flaxseed, or walnut oil are good choices. To grill, sauté, or bake, opt instead for olive oil of the ordinary variety—that is, NOT extra-virgin—or coconut oil.

Instead of “forbidden,” perhaps the new fat watchword should be “moderation.”

So how do you determine where the line lies? One way is to realistically project how the food will make you feel before you eat it.

For example, imagine you swallowed two tablespoons of top-quality extra-virgin oil by itself. Congrats, you just got around 250 mostly healthy-fat calories. But—wink!—was it good for you? I’m guessing, no.

By comparison, you could toss just one tablespoon of that same oil with a bowl of fresh seasonal produce and herbs and get a dish that provides healthy fats as well as fiber, trace minerals, and vitamins. And best of all, you still get a terrific pleasure-punch of flavor that actually leaves you satisfied, without all those extra (empty) fat calories.

Yes, in fats as in other aspects of life, simply being mindful about options is a great starting point. Need more specific guidance? Call me at 212-686-0939. I would be happy to support you as you identify your path to healthier choices—and the reward of pain-free, elegant living that awaits!

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