What is fat?
In general I think many people are confused about fats. We hear so many terms to describe fats; saturated, unsaturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, hydrogenated, trans fats, omega 3’s and 6’s; that the average person often gives in to working it all out as they don’t have the time, or the resources. In general people seem to know that olive oil is better for you than lard. But there is a lot of confusion over whether butter or margarine is better for us. I conducted a mini survey on facebook asking whether people thought butter or margarine was better for our health, and it became obvious to me that there is an awful lot of confusion among people.
Fats come in two basic forms; saturated or unsaturated. Both saturated and unsaturated fats form the basic triglyceride structure of one glycerol molecule combined with three fatty acid molecules through a dehydration reaction. Saturated fats keep the triglyceride structure, whereas unsaturated fats incorporate double bonds in the fatty acid chains which create kinks in the molecule. This prevents it from forming a solid. The average person doesn’t really need to know that though. The saturated fats are called so because they are saturated by hydrogen molecules.
In short, what one needs to know is that saturated fats are bad for you! And unsaturated fats are the good sort.
Saturated fats are the baddies of the fat world. They are found in animal by-products; meat, butter and cheese. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature, which can help in identifying them. (Although there is the artificial sort of solid unsaturated fat known as trans fat which I shall come to in a moment). Saturated fats have no benefit to our diets, even though it is commonly found in the foods we tend to eat as a nation. It is bad, bad, bad and should be avoided at all costs! Saturated fats raise cholesterol which ends up clogging our artery walls, contributing to hardening of the vessel walls, formation of plaque, high blood pressure and heart disease.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol in itself is not a bad thing. It is made by the body and plays an important role within us. Only 15% of our cholesterol comes from the foods we eat. However, a poor diet may cause our bodies to make more cholesterol, and this is where the problem begins. Our bodies need cholesterol. It is manufactured within each cell of the body, produced directly in response to the need for it. Here are some good things cholesterol does for us;
- Cholesterol makes cells waterproof to prevent toxins from entering.
- Cholesterol is used to repair wounds or irritations to our arteries.
- Some of our important hormones are made from cholesterol.
- Cholesterol is vital in the function of our brain and nervous system.
- Cholesterol can help protect us from depression and it plays a vital role in the utilization of serotonin.
- The bile salts used for the digestion of fats are made from cholesterol.
- Cholesterol is an antioxidant that protects us against free radicals.
- Cholesterol helps fight against infection.
When is Cholesterol a problem? When there is damage to the cell walls cholesterol sticks to it to prevent further damage, or the entry of toxins. But then sticky fats, such as those found in processed foods and fatty meat products stick to the cholesterol, which causes a narrowing in the passageway, restricting blood flow. If cholesterol levels are high, more clogging will occur. Damage by free radicals can be a problem. In order to reduce the amount of cholesterol used to repair such damage, a person can increase their intake of antioxidants; vitamins A, C, E and zinc, which help protect the body from free radical damage.
Saturated fats raise cholesterol. This is transported to the artery wall by LDL’s, or back to the liver by HDL’s.
Unsaturated fats come as polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. They both have positive health benefits. Polyunsaturated fats are produced by plants and fish. Monounsaturated fats are found mainly in olive oil, olives, avocados, nuts and seeds. They both exist as a liquid at room temperature, which makes them distinguishable from saturated fats. The essential fatty acids Omega-3 and Omega-6 are found within polyunsaturated fats. These play a vital role in our bodies, and cannot be made by the body, so must be consumed. They are essential for proper growth and development, renal function, reducing blood pressure, good mental health, and hair and skin condition. When converted by the body to prostaglandins they regulate hormones and ease inflammation. They are helpful to sufferers of PMS, eczema, asthma and arthritis.
Polyunsaturated fats are delicate and easily damaged by heat, so it is important to use cold pressed oils and not to use them for cooking. Deficiencies in either of the Omega-3 or 6 can cause all sorts of health problems including skin problems, high blood pressure, water retention, difficulty losing weight, decline in memory and concentration, PMS, blood sugar problems and diabetes.
Monounsaturated fats are more suitable for cooking. They play a similar function in the body to polyunsaturated fats but have the additional benefit of increasing the production of HDL; which collect cholesterol from the body and take it to the liver for removal.
- LDL (known as the bad cholesterol) carries cholesterol from the liver to the cells of the body
- HDL (known as the good cholesterol) carries the cholesterol from the body to the liver where it mixes with bile and is eliminated as waste.
Trans Fats and Hydrogenated Fats
Trans fats, Trans fatty acids, or Hydrogenated fats are a big no-no for any diet. I would advise everyone to avoid these at all costs. Trans fats are basically an unsaturated fat that has been through the process of hydrogenation to turn it from a liquid into a spreadable solid. It is an ideal texture for the food industry, but not ideal for our bodies. Hydrogenation extends the shelf life of food and makes it more workable.
For a while they were seen as a healthy alternative to saturated fats but numerous studies have shown that these fats are actually worse for us! Whilst saturated fats raise the level of LDL’s in our bodies, trans fats raise the level of LDL’s whilst also stripping the levels of HDL’s. Remember that HDL’s are the good cholesterol that we want to keep; the ones that help unclog our arteries!
So what changes could be made to a diet to reduce cholesterol levels? To start with you should reduce the levels of saturated fats that you consume. Foods that are high in saturated fats and cholesterol include; fatty cuts of meat, processed meats (sausages, burgers), bacon, poultry skins (cook chicken or turkey with the skin on to retain moisture, but do not eat the skin), egg yolks, butter, fats or oils that are solid, hydrogenated vegetable oils, coconut oil, whole milk and full fat dairy products. Most processed grain products are also high in saturated or trans fats; such as biscuits and cookies, cakes and buns, muffins and pastries. Take away food is a sure fire way to get large amounts of bad saturated fats into the diet. Chinese, burgers, fries, Indian take-aways will all clog up the arteries. These foods are not only high in saturated fats but often high in sugar, salt, preservatives, MSG’s and calories, whilst low in nutrients.
Not all oils are created equal. Refined white oils are better replaced with darker kinds; the ones that come in dark glass bottles such as olive oil. It is important that while you reduce your intake of unsaturated fats, you don’t also reduce your intake of good fats, as these are essential to our health. You could use olive oil or rapeseed oil for cooking, and use flax or other nut/seed oils for dressings. We can get more good fats into our diets by eating a few nuts and seeds each day. Good fats play a vital role in the absorption of vitamins A, D, E and K.
Soluble fibre is crucial in the role of reducing cholesterol. Soluble fibre will bind to the cholesterol contained in bile in the large intestine, helping to eliminate it from the body. Without enough fibre, cholesterol will be reabsorbed. Some dietary sources of soluble fibre include fruits, vegetables, oat bran, barley, seed husks, linseed, psyllium, dried beans, lentils, peas, soymilk and soy products.
Some good foods to include in our diets are;
- Linseeds. These are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, beneficial in treating high blood pressure and cholesterol. Grind these up and add them to salads, cereals, yoghurts or smoothies. They are also great for bowel health.
- Oats. Considered a cholesterol lowering super food. The fibre helps remove cholesterol from the body, but oats also contain an antioxidant known to help prevent free radical damage.
- Vitamin C rich fruits and vegetables. Antioxidants from vitamin C help prevent free radical damage, and lower the bodies need for cholesterol. A lack of vitamin C can result in weakened tissues and arteries.
- Red Wine. Red wine is reputed to help keep cholesterol levels low. A small glass once a day can be taken if desired.
Other steps to take to help cholesterol;
- Reduce consumption of meat. It is not necessary to eat meat every day, or even twice a day in some cases. A couple of times a week is more than enough. Vegetarian diets have a lower risk of heart disease due to their high fibre and high antioxidant properties. Instead of red meats and pork you should chose poultry or fish.
- Eat more high fibre foods.
- Avoid Saturated fats and trans fats (as mentioned above).