When good fats go bad
For years, nutritionists and doctors have preached that a low-fat diet is the key to losing weight, managing cholesterol, and preventing health problems. But more than just the amount of fat, it’s the types of fat you eat that really matter. Bad fats increase cholesterol and your risk of certain diseases, while good fats protect your heart and support overall health. In fact, good fats—such as omega-3 fats—are essential to physical and emotional health.
Despite what you may have been told, not all fats are bad guys in the waistline wars. While dietary fats all contain 9 calories per gram, they can have very different effects on your health as well as your weight. “ Bad” fats, such as trans fats, are guilty of the unhealthy things all fats have been blamed for—weight gain, clogged arteries, and so forth. But good fats such as omega-3s have the opposite effect. In fact, healthy fats play a huge role in helping you manage your moods, stay on top of your mental game, fight fatigue, and even control your weight.
The answer for a healthy diet isn’t to cut out the fat—it’s to replace bad fats with the good ones that promote health and well-being.
Damaged fat: When good fats go bad
A good fat can become bad if heat, light, or oxygen damages it. Oils that are high in polyunsaturated fats (such as flaxseed oil) must be refrigerated and kept in an opaque container. Never use oils, seeds, or nuts after they begin to smell or taste rank or bitter. Cooking at high heat with some monounsaturated or polyunsaturated oils can also damage the fat.
Trans fat: eliminate this bad fat from your diet
Small amounts of naturally-occurring trans fats can be found in meat and dairy products but it’s the artificial trans fats that are considered dangerous. These are normal fat molecules that have been twisted and deformed during a process called hydrogenation. During this process, liquid vegetable oil is heated and combined with hydrogen gas. Partially hydrogenating vegetable oils makes them more stable and less likely to spoil, which is very good for food manufacturers—and very bad for you.
Trans fats raise your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and lower your HDL (“good”) cholesterol and increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. No amount of trans fats is healthy.
Trans fats can be found in:
- Commercially-baked goods (cookies, crackers, cakes, muffins, pie crusts, pizza dough, breads like hamburger buns)
- Packaged snack foods (crackers, microwave popcorn, chips, candy)
- Solid fats (stick margarine, vegetable shortening)
- Fried foods (French fries, fried chicken, chicken nuggets, breaded fish, hard taco shells)
- Pre-mixed products (cake mix, pancake, chocolate milk)
- Anything with “ partially hydrogenated” oil listed in the ingredients
Look for hidden trans fat in your food
The USDA recommends limiting trans fat to no more than 2 grams per day; many other authorities recommend eliminating it altogether. In the U.S., if a food has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat in a serving, food companies can label a product as having 0 grams trans fat. You may think that what you’re eating is safe but all those small amounts can quickly add up to dangerous levels of trans fat, especially if you consume more than the recommended serving.
- Check the food’s ingredients. If it lists “ partially hydrogenated” oil then the food contains some trans fat.
- When eating out, put fried foods, biscuits, and other baked goods on your “ skip” list.
- Avoid fast food. Most states have no labeling regulations for fast food, and it can even be advertised as cholesterol-free when cooked in vegetable oil.
- When eating out, ask your server what type of oil your food will be cooked in. If it’s partially hydrogenated oil, run the other way or ask if your food can be prepared using olive oil.
General guidelines for choosing healthy fats
If you are concerned about your weight or overall health, rather than avoiding fat in your diet, try replacing trans fats and saturated fats from fried or processed foods with good fats, such as fish, olive oil, nuts, avocados, and high-quality dairy.
- Try to eliminate trans fats from your diet. Check food labels for trans fats or any kind of “ partially hydrogenated” oil. Avoiding commercially-baked goods, margarines, and limiting fast food goes a long way to cutting out this dangerous fat from your diet.
Reduce or eliminate fried food. While there’s a movement to ban trans fat in the U.S., that won’t necessary make your French fries any healthier, especially if the food industry decides to cook them in vegetable oils that oxidize when heated. The safer option is to cut down on fried foods altogether.