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Figuring Out Fats: The good, bad and the ugly!

October 2006
Figuring Out Fats: The good, bad and the ugly!

When it comes to fats, it is generally not a good idea to avoid all fats entirely, but to get an understanding of which fats are "good," which ones are "bad," and which ones are "ugly," and then to consume them accordingly. The South-Asian diet is very high in saturated fat as it consists of deep frying and includes dishes (mainly desserts) which are made with full fat dairy products. Dietary fat is a source of energy and supplies fatty acids which are necessary for most of our body's activities. An example of such a fatty acid is linoleic acid which must come from the diet and is needed to ensure proper growth in children and to make hormones and cell membranes. Fats not only enhance the flavor and aroma of foods, but are also essential for carrying the fat-soluble vitamins into the body. But, one has to be smart about which fats to consume in order to stay healthy and avoid getting heart disease, as certain fats can raise blood cholesterol and clog arteries.

So what are the "good," "bad," and the "ugly" fats? Let's take a closer look.

Good fats are the polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats come from plant sources and are liquid at room temperature. These are good fats as they lower the levels of cholesterol in the blood by lowering the level of low density lipoproteins (LDLs) in the blood. One drawback to these fats is that they also lower the level of high density lipoproteins (HDLs), the "good" cholesterol. Examples of these fats are corn, sunflower, and safflower oils. Many nuts and seeds and their oils are also polyunsaturated.

Monounsaturated fats are also liquid at room temperature. These include canola, olive oil, peanut oil and avocados. These fats reduce total blood cholesterol by lowering the LDL fraction while keeping the HDL stable, and so are very good. The polyunsaturated and the monounsaturated fats are the ones you want to choose from when incorporating fats in your diet. Choose from any of these unsaturated vegetable oils when cooking: corn, olive, peanut, canola, sunflower, safflower, sesame, and soybean. Olive oil, by far, is the healthiest fat around as it protects against cancer and heart disease by reducing levels of LDL cholesterol. Therefore, the rate of heart disease and cancer is low in Mediterranean countries which consume an abundance of fruits, vegetables, grains and, of course, olive oil.

The "bad" fats are the saturated fats. Saturated fat is the main cause of high cholesterol. Saturated fat is found in foods that come from mainly animal sources (meats and dairy) and some plant sources. These fats are solid at room temperature. Plant sources of saturated fats include oils such as coconut and palm kernel oil. Ghee and butter, which are commonly used in cooking many Indian dishes, are also sources of saturated fats. Ghee, which is frequently used in religious ceremonies, is also believed to have many benefits such as improving digestion, enhancing the aroma and flavor of food, and providing energy and stamina. However, we must use control when consuming ghee or foods cooked with ghee, as this is a saturated fat which interferes with the removal of cholesterol from the blood. Saturated fat is also found in whole milk and whole milk products such as cheese and paneer. Therefore, most popular Indian sweets made with whole milk products are high in saturated fats and if consumed regularly can eventually increase cholesterol levels and contribute to having clogged arteries if not completely avoided, these should be strictly limited.

According to researchers, trans fats have more detrimental effects than saturated fats, and therefore can be labeled the "ugly" fats. Trans fats are made by a process called partial hydrogenation in which otherwise healthy liquid fats are turned to solid fats to extend their shelf life. Trans fats can be found in store-bought items such as cookies, cakes, pastries, snacks, doughnuts, potato chips, and also commercially fried foods such as french fries. In the long run, consuming too many products with these trans fats has been known to increase total cholesterol levels and eventually cause heart disease (not to mention weight gain). These are the fats that are "tricky," as most of them come hidden in ready made products and unfortunately are pleasing to the palate. Trans fats are definitely the enemy and the ones you need to steer clear of.

When choosing healthy fats, a good rule of thumb to remember is to choose fats that are liquid at room temperature (such as olive, canola, sunflower, or corn oil) instead of those that are solid (such as butter, ghee, and lard). Avoid store-bought and prepackaged items that have hidden trans fats in them. Avoid full fat dairy products (milk and cheese) and try fat free ones instead. And finally, do remember to use all fats sparingly, as they are, after all, very high in calories!

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