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The Bottom Line on Fat

It is relatively easy to figure out which carbohydrates are healthy for you and which are not.

Whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes are good carbs, while refined carbohydrates (anything made primarily with white flour and sugar) are the less healthy ones. Unfortunately, when it comes to fat, things aren't that clear-cut.

Saturated fats, long believed to be unhealthy, are not all bad (coconut oil contains a special kind of saturated fat that may be good for you), while vegetable oils and margarine, once thought to be healthy, are not all good (hydrogenated vegetable oil can be worse for your heart than saturated fat).

The fat hierarchy goes something like this: Monounsaturated fat is considered the healthiest because it lowers bad cholesterol without affecting good cholesterol. Then comes polyunsaturated fat, which lowers bad cholesterol but if eaten in large quantities can lower good cholesterol, too.

Next comes saturated fat from animal sources, which raises both bad and good cholesterol. Finally, there is trans-fat (formed from hydrogenated oil), which is believed to be the unhealthiest fat because not only raises bad cholesterol but it also lowers good cholesterol.

When it comes to protecting your heart, don't forget also that refined carbohydrates, if eaten in excess, even the fat-free kind, can raise your triglyceride levels, lower your good cholesterol and make your blood more prone to clotting.

Monounsaturated fat
The best-known source of monounsaturated fat is olive oil, which has been partly credited for the lower levels of heart disease of people who follow a traditional Mediterranean diet. Mono-fat can also be found in canola oil, peanuts, pecans, hazelnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, avocado, sesame and pumpkin seeds.

The health benefits of monounsaturated fat are not just found in the cardiovascular arena. A study published in The Archives of Internal Medicine found that mono-fat may have a protective effect against breast cancer (the study also found that polyunsaturated fats may increase the risk while saturated fats seem to have no effect).

All liquid oils have the potential to become hydrogenated or saturated when heated to high temperatures. Monounsaturated oils are believed to be healthier than polyunsaturated oils because they can withstand higher cooking temperatures and are not easily converted into a hydrogenated or saturated fat.

The best kind of olive oil to buy is "virgin olive oil," which means it is unrefined and not chemically processed.

The only bad press olive oil has received was a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, which found that olive oil reduced blood flow in people who did not eat plenty of fruits, vegetables or fish. This indicates that it isn't just the type of oil you use but the totality of your diet that makes the difference in the health of your heart and arteries.

Canola oil, meanwhile, had to fight off unfounded and exaggerated stories about its being a health hazard. There have been so many rumors about canola oil that it has reached urban legend status. If you want to know the real facts, go to www.snopes.com.

A unique property of polyunsaturated fat is that it contains the largest amounts of essential fatty acids, omega-6 and omega-3.

An essential fat is one that is necessary for good health but cannot be manufactured by the body. This means the only source is from the food we eat.

Omega-6 can be found in large quantities in the following oils: safflower (the richest source), sunflower, corn, sesame, hemp, pumpkin, soybean, walnut, wheat germ and evening primrose. Corn, sunflower and soybean oil are probably the most common sources in the average diet.

The best sources of omega-3 are high-fat cold-water fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, eels, and tuna. Canola and flax oil also contain good amounts of omega-3. Smaller amounts can be found in plant sources like dark green vegetables, seaweed, flaxseed and nuts as well as some warm-water fish.

Research indicates that omega-3 fatty acids can help regulate blood sugar levels, lower blood pressure, lower triglycerides and make blood less likely to clot. Since oily fish is the richest source of omega-3, nutritionists recommend having at least two servings a week.

Although polyunsaturated fat as a whole is considered a healthy fat, there are three things that need to be taken into account. One, if too much omega-6 from vegetable oil and margarine is consumed, it can lower good cholesterol as well as the bad.

Two, an imbalance in the ratio of essential fatty acids (too much omega-6 compared to omega-3) is believed to be associated with all kinds of conditions like an impaired immune system, vision problems, high blood pressure, increased water retention, increased blood clotting and heart disease.

To date, there is no official recommendation on the correct ratio of essential fat. Some scientists believe it should be 3:1 (three omega-6 to one omega-3) while others believe it should be 1:1. More research is needed.

It has been estimated that a person following a typical westernized diet is consuming a ratio of between 14:1 and 20:1. This is due mainly to food fried in polyunsaturated vegetable oils and the use of margarine.

Three, unrefined vegetable oils are better for you than refined oils while hydrogenated oils are the worst.

Trans-fat
While many people know that eating too much animal fat is not good for their health, not many are aware that trans-fat, which is found in many packaged foods like cookies, crackers and potato chips, can be even worse for their heart.

Trans-fat is formed when food manufacturers hydrogenate vegetable oil. The process of hydrogenation involves forcing hydrogen into liquid oil to make it more "stable" (less prone to becoming rancid and thus extending its shelf life) and give it a firmer consistency. Trans-fat can turn out to be the deadliest kind of fat for our health because it not only raises bad cholesterol but it also lowers good cholesterol.

Right now, only saturated fat is indicated in nutrition labels at the back of processed food packages. However, you can tell if a product has trans-fat by looking for the words "partially hydrogenated" or "hydrogenated" in the list of ingredients.

Health experts in the US are recommending that food manufacturers disclose exactly how much trans-fat their product contains so in the near future labels will have the exact number of grams printed on them.

In light of what is currently known about dietary fat and its effects on human health, here is the bottom line:

  • In spite of a few short-term studies indicating that a high-saturated fat diet may be safe, the most sensible approach at the moment is to cut down on saturated fat from animal sources. There isn't enough research to justify playing Russian roulette with your health.
  • Use monounsaturated (olive or canola oil), polyunsaturated (unrefined vegetable oils like corn, soybean, sunflower), or healthy saturated (virgin coconut oil) oils.
  • Improve your essential fat ratio by eating more food rich in omega-3 like fatty fish, nuts and dark-green vegetables.
  • Stay away as much as possible from processed foods that contain partially hydrogenated oil. According to experts, the main sources of trans-fat in the typical westernized diet are from packaged food, fried fast-food and junk food.
  • Many nutritionists now recommend a moderate-fat diet (30-35 percent of total calories) rather than a low-fat one (20 percent or less) because eating the right kind of fat is healthy for you and a moderate-fat diet is more satisfying.
  • One of the criticisms against the Healthy Eating Pyramid of Dr. Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health is that vegetable oils are placed at the bottom of the pyramid with the advice to eat at most meals.

Weight-loss experts are concerned that the public will take this as a message that they can eat as much olive oil as they want and not gain any weight.

So keep in mind that all fat, no matter what the source, contains approximately 120 calories per tablespoon. Moderation is still the key to successful weight management.

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