On to lesson two of the fat saga… In my last post I discussed why fat is a vital inclusion in your diet, and the reason why it doesn’t make you fat. Today, we are onto the four types of fat. I’m sure we have all heard the terms saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and trans fats thrown around. But what do they all mean? Which ones should I include and which should I run screaming from? Let me start with some science again…
I want you to cast your mind back to high school chemistry and the periodic table. Don’t worry I’ll make this quick. To put it very simply, each different element has a specific number of “free hands” that it wants to fill. For this scenario we need to talk about carbon which has 4 free hands. So fats are chains of carbon atoms with hydrogen atoms attached to fill the spare hands.
The term saturated here, means that each spare carbon hand is holding onto a hydrogen atom. So every bond is saturated with hydrogen. Now I absolutely have fallen victim to the “fat is bad” mentality in the past. When someone would say “saturated fat” it would conjure up images of my body being saturated with fat. Which wasn’t really the look I was going for. But this is so far from the truth! The fact that each available carbon bond has been occupied with hydrogen means that saturated fats are extremely stable, making them great to cook with as they won’t go rancid at high temperatures, and they are also less likely to cause oxidation within the body leading to a number of illnesses such as heart disease and cancer.
Saturated fats are predominantly found in animal sources, but also tropical oils such as coconut. Because of the rigid structure, saturated fats are generally solid at room temperature, but do liquefy when heated. These are the fats that you want to incorporate into your diet on a daily basis.
Where saturated fats are completely saturated with hydrogen, monounsaturated fats have one (mono) double bond between carbon molecules. The translation of this is that the structure is relatively stable, but still has some potential to bind with other atoms to completely fill all of the carbon hands.
Monounsaturated fats are found in plant oils such as olive, sesame, avocado, peanut, almond etc. These are liquid at room temperature, but will solidify when refrigerated. They are quite stable to cook with, but shouldn’t be heated to extremely high temperatures. They are also good to incorporate into your diet regularly.
These fats will always remain liquid, even when refrigerated, due to the fact that they have 2 or more double bonds in their structure.
These are what many call the “essential fatty acids” (although some nutrition experts will disagree!), and are found in things like fish oil and flaxseed oil. They are also are found in cheaper plant oils such as corn and soybean oil which are frequently used by food manufacturers and should be avoided.
When you hear this word run. Seriously. Run screaming for the hills and do not consume. Trans fats are polyunsaturated fats that have been manipulated by food manufacturers in a process called partial hydrogenation. This basically makes the fats more stable resulting in a longer shelf life. Great for food manufacters… not so great for us.
Trans fats are found in many commercial foods such as pastries and baked goods, margarine, some frozen foods, fast food and many other items. For many years food and health authorities demonised saturated fats and promoted these partially hydrogenated oils. The perfect example is butter vs margarine – everyone has been told by many authorities that butter is fattening, that it will clog your arteries, increase cholesterol levels and promote heart disease, while margarine is the safe alternative. This couldn’t be more wrong! In fact, there is a large body of evidence that shows that dietary intake of trans fats increases cholesterol levels and risk of cardiovascular disease, impairs hormone synthesis, compromises immune function, promotes weight gain and improper insulin metabolism, reduces the body’s ability to repair as well a range of other issues. This evidence is so alarming that the use of trans fats has been seriously restricted in many nations around the world.
So how do I know if I am consuming trans fats? That is a good question… there isn’t one ingredient that you need to look out for, as the structural change comes about during processing. Furthermore, food manufacturers in Australia do not need to label the trans fat content in their products unless they are making a health claim about fat or cholesterol. However, many companies do opt to show the trans fat of their product if it is zero – so keep your eyes peeled for this. If the ingredient list mentions partially hydrogenated oil, or some variation of this, then it DOES contain trans fat. Do not eat. The only real way to avoid trans fats is to follow a diet of whole, unprocessed foods.
(Trans Fat Free) Food For Thought…
Did you know, that trans fats were first introduced into commercial food products in the 1970s? That means it took around 40 years for the dangers of this ingredient to be admitted to the public and action taken to reduce or withdraw it from the food supply. I don’t know about you, but this really frightens me, and in my view adds so much ammunition to the argument that we should follow a whole, unprocessed diet consisting of traditional ingredients.
In my next post on fats I will elaborate on saturated fats, why these are safe (and in fact beneficial!) and which ones you should be incorporating into your diet. I will also cover one of my favourite oils… COCONUT! It is truly incredible and I can’t wait to share the reason why.
Until then, I invite you to start reading your food labels, to get savvy on which fat is which, and to be mindful of the ones that are going into your body ♥