Good fat, bad fat

By: Ashley Newport Dec 01, 2010

It’s a scary term, but not all f-words are created equal

Some people might think that keeping fat off their bodies involves eliminating it from their diet. It’s certainly not an illogical leap, but it could be an unhealthy one because while abundant animal fats might wreak havoc on your waistline and heart health, others promote good cholesterol — among other benefits. So before the infamous and frightening three-letter word sends you running from the deli to the produce section, remember that fat isn’t as ominous as you might think. Like everything else, there are good fats and bad. The key to good health is choosing the right ones.

“You can divide fats into saturated, unsaturated and trans fats,” says registered dietician and personal trainer Alexis Williams. “Unsaturated fats are plant-based, such as fat found in nuts, seeds, seed butters and oils, avocados, olives, tofu and fish. They can be a good source of omega 3s, and some have anti-inflammatory properties. They’re good for the brain and heart.”

The general recommendation is that men consume about 1600 mgs of unsaturated fats a day, and women about 1100. The benefits outweigh the detriments, as the extra calories (nuts and seeds can pack a surprising caloric punch), are worth the good cholesterol and feeling of satiation (just be sure not to overdo it). “It’s also important for hormone production, and it makes you feel full,” adds Williams.

The “bad” fats — the ones you should limit or avoid — are saturated and trans fats. Studies suggest trans fats can raise bad cholesterol and lower the good, and unsaturated fats have been linked to hardening of the arteries, which can cause heart attacks and strokes. Fortunately, a lot of the legwork involved in eliminating trans fats has been done for you, with more and more companies limiting or removing the bad-rep fat from their products in the last few years. The sneaky fats, however, are likely to crop up in fast and processed foods. Also, Williams advises people not to see trans fat-free food as a diet-friendly free-for-all. “It doesn’t mean it’s not high in saturated fat,” she warns. Saturated fat, something with an equally naughty rap sheet, is an animal-based fat found in foods like butter, lard, cream, cheese and bacon.

Williams warns that anyone heading towards the fat-free aisle of the grocery store should ensure that the products haven’t compensated for the reduced fat by overcompensating with other ingredients. “[The product] might not necessarily be lower in calories, such as low-fat baked goods,” she says. “You don’t necessarily need to go with no fat, but low-fat can be a good choice if they haven’t added anything, just taken something out. [Be careful to look for] added gelatin and cornstarch, and don’t overeat something because it’s labeled low-fat.”

Ashley Newport is a freelance journalist based in Toronto – well, in a city a little west of Toronto. She’s been writing for two years about almost everything. Her favourite topics include politics, society, entertainment, food and health. She loves to find out new things about nutrition, because she knows how important it is to know more about the health benefits of the foods you love. Her work can be found in Foodservice and Hospitality Magazine and a small Oakville community online paper located somewhere in cyberspace (Google Ashley to find it!).