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  • Janus Chan

Fats: the most misunderstood nutrient

Fats, the word that sends us shudders whenever we hear them. Most of us would opt for low fat or non fat options, as they are seen as healthy. Don’t add too much oil. A popular Taiwanese singer even seen rinsing her food in water before she eats, so that she can keep herself slim and this method took off in many ladies who wanted to look as slim as her.

So, why do we need fats in our body?

Fat is a type of nutrient, like protein and carbohydrates. The important role it plays in our body is to absorb Vitamin A, D, E and K. We need some fat for energy. Fats also protects our heart and brain health. However, we need to know not all fats are the same.

Let’s explore the “good” and “bad” fats.

“Good” fats are unsaturated fats and omega-3. Their roles include managing our moods, help us stay alert, fight fatigue and, surprisingly good news, control our weight. “Bad” fats are trans fats and saturated fats are the main cause of weight gain, clogged arteries and even increases risk of certain diseases.

How fats affect our cholesterol?

The type of fats that enters into our body affects our cholesterol levels. What is cholesterol? It is a fatty, wax like substance so that our body can function well. However, not all cholesterol benefits our body.

HDL Cholesterol - High density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol is what is known as the “good” fat.

LDL Cholesterol – Low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is what is known as the “bad” fat.

In a glance, the key is to lower the LDL level and raise the HDL high in order to protect us from heart disease and stroke. As mentioned earlier, high level of LDL cholesterol increase the clogging the arteries and low HDL will increase cardiovascular risk. Hence, it is more important what kind of fats we consumed than be concerned about lowering cholesterol.

So, how do we go about implementing fats into our daily diet?

Now that we know that it is not about having low fat diet that benefits our body, our focus should be on what are the good fats to see on our meal plates and what are the bad ones to reduce.

Healthy fats

Every time, you shop for your groceries, look out for monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. These fats are beneficial to you cardiovascular health. Their main functions includes:

  • Lower the risk of heart disease and stroke.

  • Lower bad LDL cholesterol levels, while increasing good HDL.

  • Prevent abnormal heart rhythms.

  • Lower triglycerides associated with heart disease and fight inflammation.

  • Lower blood pressure.

  • Prevent atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of the arteries).

Good news if you are trying to lose some excess weight. Taking in more of these fats can help you to be more filling and you are less likely to feel hungry in a short time.

Some examples of Monounsaturated fat:

  • Olive, canola, peanut, and sesame oils

  • Avocados

  • Olives

  • Nuts (almonds, peanuts, macadamia, hazelnuts, pecans, cashews)

  • Peanut butter

Some examples of Polyunsaturated fat:

  • Sunflower, sesame, and pumpkin seeds

  • Flaxseed

  • Walnuts

  • Fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, trout, sardines) and fish oil

  • Soybean and safflower oil

  • Soymilk

  • Tofu

Unhealthy fats

Trans fat can be found in some food and they are usually very minimal. However, there are artificial trans fats around which are not considered safe. It not only raises bad LDL cholesterol but also lowers good HDL levels. It can also cause inflammation, which is linked to heart disease, stroke, and other chronic conditions and contributes to insulin resistance, which increases the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. It also makes us put on weight as the body is in the state of inflammation. Examples of trans fats:

  • Commercially-baked pastries, cookies, doughnuts, muffins, cakes, pizza dough

  • Packaged snack foods (crackers, microwave popcorn, chips)

  • Stick margarine, vegetable shortening

  • Fried foods (French fries, fried chicken, chicken nuggets, breaded fish)

  • Anything containing hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, even if it claims to be “trans fat-free”

Somewhere in between Fats - Saturated fats

We've been told that saturated fat is unhealthy. However, recent years, it is suggested that it may not be so.

Foods like fatty meats, lard, full-fat dairy products like butter and cream, coconuts, coconut oil, palm oil and dark chocolate, contains saturated fats. These fats will turn solid when they are in an air conditioned room.

For many decades, we learn that saturated fats can raise cholesterol, so we classify it under the bad fat. However, recent studies shows that what it raises is the total cholesterol – both LDL and HDL cholesterol. Hence, that is not the right indicator to be labelled as “bad” fat.

However, there are people with certain medical condition may want to reduce saturated fats. You may check with your family doctor about it.

Saturated fats does have their benefits aspects.They are great for cooking as they are highly resistant to heat-induced damage. Examples are coconut oil, lard and butter. Polyunsaturated fats, like olive oil, safflower oil, omega-3, they oxidised easily when they're heated.

Examples of Saturated fat:

  • Red meat (beef, lamb, pork)

  • Chicken skin

  • Whole-fat dairy products (milk, cream, cheese)

  • Butter

  • Lard

  • Tropical oils such as coconut and palm oil

Now that we know more about fats and the types of fats that are beneficial to our body, We can now implement fats into our meals. The guidelines include:

  • Implement the habit of reading the food label: You should be able to recognise what they are. If you see things that contains numbers and some unknown long winded names. They are probably something that you should put it back on the shelves.

  • Reduce trans fats from your diet. Check food labels for trans fats. Limiting commercially-baked goods and fast food can go a long way.

  • Eat omega-3 fats every day. Include a variety of fish sources as well as plant sources such as walnuts, ground flax seeds, flaxseed oil, canola oil, and soybean oil.

  • Choose the right oil for cooking: If you are cooking over high heat, choose coconut oil. Olive oil for light cooking. Cold pressed extra virgin olive oil is not meant for heating.

  • Take more avocados. They are loaded with heart- and brain-healthy fats.

  • Switch your snacks to nuts.

  • Dress your own salad. You can use cold pressed extra virgin olive oil for your dressing. Or throw in some herbs/ garlic into olive oil in a bottle to turn the oil into a special flavour.

Bon appetit!