by Les Saidel - August, 2011
When the experts talk about fat, they tend to use terms like HDL, saturated, partially hydrogenized, trans, LDL, polyunsaturated, fatty acid - it's enough to make your head spin.
In this article I am going to try make some sense of this "quagmire" of terminology and explain how the different types of fat work, which are healthy and which aren't.
Fat has a bad reputation. Fat makes you fat, doesn't it? Some fats have even more notoriety like cholesterol, which everyone knows is bad, right?
As I have repeated many time in this series of articles, partial knowledge is sometimes more dangerous than NO knowledge at all. If you value your health it is imperative that you are fully informed and do not rely on partial truths and cliches.
The truth is that fats are essential to life. They provide a reservoir of energy when blood sugar levels are depleted, they provide a layer of insulation in our bodies against the elements thereby preventing illness and they contain many substances that are vital to normal biological functioning. On the flip side, too much of certain types of fat can be damaging to our health. We need to know which and go easy on them.
Before we begin, it is important to understand that medical research is a process of evolution. Many things that were thought to be correct 40 years ago are no longer correct. Similarly, research conducted today may prove to be false in 50 years time. For this reason it is advisable to be cognizant of medical wisdom, but also to take it with a grain of salt, as it is based on an ever evolving process that may change tomorrow.
So let us embark now on a journey of exploration into the world of fats.
There are two major categories of fat -
Saturated fats are so called because their molecular structure is "saturated" with hydrogen atoms making them more solid at room temperature. These fats are common in foods such as meat, cheese, butter, lard etc.
Unsaturated fats have less (or no) hydrogen atoms and are thus more liquid at room temperature. These fats are commonly found in liquid vegetable oils - sunflower, olive, soya, etc.
The more hydrogen in the fat (or the more hydrogenised it is), the more solid.
Over 40 years ago medical research hypothesized that saturated fats, such as butter, cheese and fatty meats were the major cause of artherosclerosis (clogging of the arteries). The theory was that cholesterol, a substance contained in saturated fats, (which has since become more notorious than Al Capone) clogged up the arteries.
Based on this research, the food industry searched for ways to make saturated fats "healthier". Since it was known that unsaturated (liquid) fats were more "healthy" and that adding hydrogen made these fats more solid, experimentation began with a process called hydrogenation (that was discovered at the turn of the 20th century). This process injects hydrogen atoms into an unsaturated fat and makes it more solid.
From this process "margarine" was born. Margarine is made up of an unsaturated (liquid) fat that has been hydrogenated.
Immediately the food industry and the medical world hailed the virtues of margarine that was lower in cholesterol and saturated fats and this became almost gospel. As mentioned before, current medical research is only good until it is disproved. Thirty years ago, nobody knew anything about something called trans-fats. Today it is becoming more apparent that the partially hydrogenated oil fats in margarine for example, are high in trans fats (more about this later) and are actually worse for your health than saturated fats like butter.
That's the solid fat story. On the liquid side, a similar frenzy ensued with research into new kinds of refined oils that were low in cholesterol.
In Canada, a company conducted research into the commercial refining of a seed called the rape seed into oil by hybridizing and genetically engineering the seed. The resulting product, in reality modified rape seed oil, was given a catchier brand name and dubbed "Canola" oil. Canola was actually derived as an acronym for Canada and Oil. Canola oil is the new darling of modern nutrition and medical research, being low in cholesterol.
If you research Canola oil on the internet you will find an active debate between those who are for it and praise its low cholesterol qualities, and those who are against it, claiming that it depletes Vitamin E in the body and may even be carcinogenic. It is difficult to tell who is right and who is wrong. It is impossible to know what hidden agenda lies behind the various positions. Despite being the current "darling" of oils, it is entirely possible that in 10 years time, research may ditch it as it has with margarine and trans fats.
I am not going to get into the added complexity of describing what the difference is between mono and poly saturated and unsaturated fats are - this is more of chemical thing - suffice it to say that both polyUNsaturated and monoUNnsaturated types of fats, found naturally in nuts, fish, leafy vegetables etc. are healthy fats.
The latest buzz in the world of fats is something called TRANS fats. Although trans fats exist in nature, the vast majority consumed today are the product of the margarine industry that uses the process of hydrogenation.
Without getting too technical, if the unsaturated (liquid) fat is only partially hydrogenised, an unwanted element is introduced called a "trans-isomer" (hence the name trans fats). This element has been found to be seriously detrimental to health and has currently been named as the biggest culprit in the cause of heart disease.
In the latter part of the last decade the food industry has been scurrying to comply with new FDA standards to reduce trans fats and has been modifying the process of hydrogenation to eliminate the unwanted "trans-isomer". They accomplish this by fully hydrogenising the fat. Only partially hydrogenised fats contain the bad guy. Fully hydrogenised fats however are harder than partially hydrogenised fats and therefore other compounds need to be added to "soften" it.
Again, this projected lifespan of this current discovery of trans fats and its repercussions on health are as uncertain as its predecessors.
The next subject I want to discuss is the way fats travel in our bloodstream. To understand this, we need to understand another term (oh no!) - lipoprotein.
Fats are not water soluble. In order to travel around the body (in the bloodstream, which is mostly water based), they need to hitch a ride. So the lipid (an alias for fat), combines with a protein to form a "lipoprotein" (the protein actually coats the fat). This resembles a slick racing car and allows the fat to zip along inside the arteries.
The speed of the car depends on the ratio of fat to protein. The more protein - the more like a racing car. The less protein, the more like the old family jalopy. Lipoproteins with more protein coating are named High Density Lipoproteins (HDL) and those with less protein are Low Density Lipoproteins (LDL).
If the fats zip around the bloodstream, they have less chance of being caught up in a traffic jam. The slower kind that tends to linger, can easily get caught up in the works and this can lead to gradual build up of residue on the walls of the blood vessels.
For this reason, our race car HDL is considered the good guy and the jalopy LDL, the bad guy as far as fats are concerned.
Anyone who has had a blood test will recognize the symbols HDL and LDL, as well as another - triglycerides. Triglycerides form the building block of something called a VLDL (Very Low Density Lipoprotein). If you thought our LDL jalopy was bad, VLDL's are like a horse and cart compared to them and are considered the pits. For this reason it is recommended to have a low count of these in your bloodstream (a small amount is essential, just like cholesterol, but too much is bad).
The trick is to increase the amount of HDL in our blood and lower the amount of LDL. Previous research blamed saturated fats in meat, butter and cheese etc. for the increase in LDL and VLDL in our blood. The latest research seems to indicate that it is refined carbohydrates that create the excess of VLDL's in our blood and that the lifestyles we lead and the amount of exercise we do more directly determines our susceptibility to heart disease and not the amount of saturated fats we eat.
That's it, I'm sure your heads are already spinning like I was afraid of in the beginning of the article, so I am not going to delve any deeper into the world of fats.
Instead I am going to summarize and try draw some conclusions from what we have already discussed so that you can apply this knowledge in a practical way in your daily lives.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I am going to repeat my philosophy regarding food and health. Stick with what is natural and do things in moderation.
If we can pin the blame on one cause for the decline of health in modern times, it is tampering with our food. Trying to make it lighter, fluffier, more melt-in-the-mouth, creamier, to be able to produce more oil from the seed to increase profit per acre of crop - to try achieve ARTIFICIALLY what is not possible naturally. This has been the greatest contributor to disease and death in our time. Man in his folly (thinking that he is cleverer than G-d), has perverted our world to such a degree that everything we eat and drink, the very air we breathe is tampered with in some way.
The key to eating fats wisely is the same as for any other food group. Stick to what is naturally occurring (and not genetically engineered - GMO) or artificially manufactured in a chemistry lab. Good, nourishing stuff such as olive oil and foods like fish (that contain good polyunsaturated fats Omega-3 and Omega-6) and yes, even meat and butter. Eat these natural foods in preference to any food that was "engineered by man" and eat them in MODERATION. Balance your metabolism with a healthy lifestyle, with exercise. Run a mile from any food that has an ingredient you cannot pronounce or decipher because it has an E- in front of it.
That is the key to correct fat consumption, as it is to any other food group.
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