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Don’t Fear Fat

If you’re afraid of fats, you’re not alone. For many, fat is a four-letter word, but not all of its forms are worth swearing off.

Tiffany Duncan
Chelsi Fisher
August 28, 2018

For most of us, there are many negative connotations surrounding the word “fat.” We are taught to shun fattening foods to the point where simply hearing the word “fat” makes us want to reach for something else. But there’s so much more to that word that we are missing and misunderstanding. It’s actually not about not eating fat; it’s about eating the right kind of fat.

According to Kelly Leveque, celebrity health coach based in Los Angeles and author of Body Love: Live in Balance, Weigh What You Want, and Free Yourself From Food Drama Forever, fat is one of the four main food groups we should be consuming daily. Leveque refers to these as the Fab Four: proteins, fiber, greens, and fats. The good fats, of course. These include food items like avocado, salmon, flaxseed, walnuts, almond butter, and cooking oils like olive, avocado, and coconut.

Good fats are considered beneficial because they help fuel the body, assist in necessary bodily functions, and even fight bad cholesterol levels and reduce inflammation. When consumed in the right way and in the proper amount, good fat can also keep you fuller for longer — cutting out the risk of snacking before lunch because you’re absolutely starving by 10 a.m.

But let’s back up. What makes a fat good or bad?  It all has to do with their chemical structure and how it’s formed or manipulated.

Fats can be broken down into three categories.

The Good: Unsaturated Fat
Unsaturated fat comes from nature, mainly vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fish. This good type of fat is comprised of two groups: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Most monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and are thought to reduce the risk of heart disease while also fighting inflammation. Studies show that, though Mediterranean countries enjoy a high-fat diet due to the amount of olive oil they consume, people from this region also have a much lower rate of heart disease than other countries that favor cooking with saturated fats. Besides olive oil, avocado and avocado oil are also good sources of monounsaturated fats.

Polyunsaturated fats are even more important in a healthy diet than monounsaturated fats, as polyunsaturated fats are responsible for carrying out essential bodily functions like muscle movement and blood clotting. The body does not naturally produce polyunsaturated fats and so must get it from an outside source. The two main types of polyunsaturated fats are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids — two terms maybe you’ve heard before but have not known what they meant.

Omega-3s can be found in fatty fish like mackerel, salmon, sardines, walnuts, and flax seeds. Omega-3s have been praised for providing a host of health benefits including reducing harmful cholesterol levels, reducing blood pressure, and helping to prevent stroke and heart disease.

Omega-6 fatty acids can also fight heart disease, and can easily be incorporated into your diet by cooking with oils such as grape seed, safflower, soybean, and sunflower.

The Bad: Saturated Fats  
Unlike unsaturated fats, saturated fats should be consumed in moderation. Though saturated fats have some health benefits like aiding brain function and allowing bones to effectively absorb calcium, they can also cause weight gain and drive up cholesterol levels when eaten in excess. Saturated fats largely come from animals and are solid at room temperature, like butter, coconut oil, and cooled bacon grease.

Other saturated fats include red meat and rich dairy products like eggs, cheese, and whole milk. Saturated fats can also be found in almost every kind of commercially available baked goods and prepackaged snacks.

The Ugly: Trans Fat  
When it comes to gaining weight, one of the big bad guys largely at fault is trans fat. Though traces of trans fat can occur in some fatty meats and dairy products, it is largely the man-made byproduct of a process called hydrogenation. Hydrogenation manipulates healthy vegetable oils and turns them into solids. Hydrogenating oils is done to create a longer shelf life (this shows up in prepackaged food as “partially hydrogenated oil”) and enhance the overall taste and texture of certain foods. Trans fat was first introduced on the market in margarine, but it is now also found in foods like french fries, doughnuts, frozen pizzas, crackers, and many, many packaged snack foods and baked goods.

Trans fat is the most dangerous kind of fat because it possesses zero health benefits; quite the opposite, trans fat causes a myriad major health issues, like raising bad cholesterol levels and increasing the risk of stroke, heart disease, and developing type 2 diabetes.  


A Note on Olive Oil

Not all olive oils are created equal; some contain more health-promoting nutrients than others. This can get confusing, as the grocery store offers so many choices of olive oils, it can be daunting to pick one. Basically, olive oils are classified by the processing method used to extract the oils, and if any additives have been added. Here’s a simple guideline:

Extra-Virgin Olive Oil (often abbreviated EVOO):  This is the thoroughbred of olive oils. Extra-virgin means simply the crushed, extracted juices of the olives. EVOO is totally unrefined, meaning no heat has been applied at any point to alter the chemical makeup, and no chemicals have been added. This olive oil will have a fruity, peppery, complex taste and should be served with bread for dipping or in a homemade salad dressing so the oil can really show off. EVOO also contains the healthiest fats and nutrient benefit.

Virgin Olive Oil:  Though this oil is rarely seen in American grocery retailers, the processing method is exactly the same as extra-virgin (no heat, no chemicals). The only difference is that virgin olive oil contains minimal defects and is not as fruity as extra-virgin.

Pure Olive Oil:  If a bottle is labeled “pure olive oil” or even just “olive oil,” it is generally a blend of virgin olive oil and refined olive oil. It is lower in quality than both extra-virgin and virgin olive oils, has a more neutral flavor, and generally makes a good all-purpose oil for sautéing or roasting veggies (though remember most of the nutrients are contained in EVOO).

Light Olive Oil (Refined):  In the case of olive oils, the term “light” does not mean less calories. It simply means that because it has been heated and/or had chemicals added to it to remove defects of the fruit, it will have a very light, neutral taste, The smoke point of light olive oil is higher than the other three classes of oil, meaning it’s a good oil to fry or grill with because it won’t burn and smoke as quickly.