Healthy fats, less healthy & bad fats: what they are & how to choose them
Since the 1960s, fats have been considered the enemy number one of diets.
Very caloric (1 gram provides 7 kcal) and extremely tasty, it becomes easy to exaggerate with their consumption. In a balanced diet, their intake requires constant vigilance, especially for those who need to lose excess weight. But this is not the only defect!
If we do not want to become perfect “clients” of Big Pharma, we must be on our guard against possible excesses, which would lead us to cardiovascular diseases and others related to metabolic disorders: the thoughtless intake of fats in general is related to serious inflammation of the cardiovascular system and damage to vital organs, such as liver, pancreas, kidneys and intestines; consequently a considerable reduction in quality of life or even death (in many cases).
However, it would be just as wrong to eliminate fats from the diet, since our body needs a certain amount of fats in order to manage metabolic activities (absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and minerals; construction of cell membranes and protection of nerves such as myelin; blood coagulation; production of hormones and muscle movement) and also to feel satiated, thus avoiding overeating. But which ones do we need?
Today we are going to talk about healthy fats, less healthy and bad fatty acids: the latter, to be more precise, are the cause of the formation in the inner wall of the arteries, of thickenings or plaques containing cholesterol.
The topic of lipids is very broad, so much so that I am working on another compendium and I hope as soon as possible to make available to you, but some hints I think it is necessary to provide now, although quite technical.
So those who do not want to get lost in notions and go straight to the point, make a jump by clicking here!
Fatty acids are the main components of lipids and consist of aliphatic chains that begin with a carboxylic group (-COOH) and end with a methyl group (CH3) and in the middle there are a series of carbons atoms (C) to which are coupled 2 hydrogen atoms (H) forming methylene (CH2). We have 2 main types: saturated fatty acids and unsaturated fatty acids (trans fats are unsaturated fats with trans double bonds). When each carbon atom binds two hydrogen atoms to itself, not having another chance to bind a future hydrogen atom, it is a saturated fatty acid, because it is saturated with hydrogen.
saturated fatty acid
When one or two carbon atoms have no hydrogen, we will have unsaturated fatty acids; which are divided into two groups monounsaturated (the image on the left below), if only one carbon atom in the chain has no hydrogen; and polyunsaturated (the image on the right below) when more than one carbon atom has no hydrogen bond.
unsaturated fatty acids
The length of these chains has a fundamental importance in determining if they are good or bad fats and to be able to categorize them according to their physical-chemical characteristics: short chain (up to 6 carbon atoms), medium chain (from 6 to 12 carbon atoms), long chain (from 14 to 20) and very long chain (more than 20).
Moreover, length is inversely proportional to water solubility: when length increases, water solubility decreases, and as a consequence the melting point increases giving a more consistent, solid structure. This characteristic, very appreciated by bakeries, is instead much less, by our veins.
Having said that, I realize that at home we cannot count the length of the chains or check whether or not each carbon has a hydrogen bond; however, we can tell if they are saturated or unsaturated by an easy visual inspection: at room temperature (20 °C) they can be solid (and are called fats) if they are rich in saturated fatty acids, or liquid (they are called oils) if they are rich in unsaturated fatty acids.
Unsaturated fatty acids (Healthy fats)
They are the healthy fats, without any doubt; they are found in the liquid state at room temperature and mainly in foods of plant origin. They are mainly divided in two groups: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated: the last ones make up the major part of lipids of vegetable origin.
Polyunsaturated fats are sources of two essential fatty acids, linoleic acid (LA), a fatty acid belonging to the omega-6 group, and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a fatty acid belonging to the omega-3 group; these play a key role in various processes of the body, including the functioning of the nervous and immune systems, regulation of blood pressure, blood coagulation.
Defined as good, because they help to achieve a significant reduction in the level of LDL bad cholesterol, and simultaneous increase in the good one, HDL. They also facilitate the reduction of triglycerides present in the blood, stimulating a better defense against cardiovascular diseases.
But to obtain these beneficial effects, it would be necessary to take them not in addition, but in place of saturated fats, eliminating all trans fats as already explained.
Foods containing unsaturated fats:
– fatty fish: sardines, anchovies, salmon, herring and mackerel
– white meat: such as turkey and chicken (even if in limited quantities)
– lard (even if in limited quantities)
– nuts: walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, acorns etc. and spreads made from them
– oil seeds: olives, flax, chia, hemp, sesame, sunflower, corn, soybeans, peanuts, canola and oils made from them
Extra tip for coconut oil
Although coconut oil has an important level of saturated fats (about 90%), it is considered among the healthy fats, as its saturated fats differ from those of animal origin: more than 50% are medium-chain fatty acids which, as I said above, means high water solubility and therefore faster digestibility.
But coconut is not a sustainable choice for European citizens, use it with responsability!
Saturated fatty acids (Less healthy fats)
Saturated fatty acids are present both in fats of vegetable origin (such as tropical oils) and in fats of animal origin (such as cheese, suet, etc.): statistically those of animal origin are much more present in our Western diets.
For a long time they were considered among the main causes of cardiovascular disease, increased triglycerides and bad cholesterol (LDL). But recent studies show that saturated fats are actually not all that bad, they are now called less healthy fats: there is no particular correlation between saturated fat intake and cardiovascular disease (2). Nevertheless, experts agree that the best way to lead a healthy diet and away from the risks of cardiovascular disease is to limit their consumption, eliminate trans fats and replace them with unsaturated ones.
Foods containing saturated fat:
– whole milk and yogurt and their derivatives such as cheese, butter, cream, ice cream and desserts
– animal fats
– red meat: beef, pork, lamb, veal, the skin of poultry animals
For a fully healthy diet, make sure that animal-sourced foods come from organic farming. Tap here for more
– tropical oils such as coconut or palm oil
Trans fatty acids
If there are healthy fats (called also good fats) and less healthy fats, trans fats are certainly part of the group of very bad ones: in the plant world we have practically no trace of them, they are occurring naturally in animal-based foods and in hydrogenated vegetable oils as every other food product containing these industrial fats!
I believe that many metabolic diseases that have become scourges for humans, are due to the need to reduce costs to the bone in the food industry: the discovery of the last century, in other words the partially or fully hydrogenated vegetable oils (margarine), contain high amounts of trans fatty acids, and therefore responsible for the significant increases in bad cholesterol and triglycerides, beside causing cancers.
These trans fats are formed during the production of margarines; a treatment called hydrogenation, which consists of adding hydrogen to the carbon-carbon double bonds of the aliphatic chains, using hydrogen in the form of gas in the presence of a catalyst; in this way, vegetable oils solidify to mimic the characteristics of butter and suet.
For some years now, some European countries and others have heeded the call of the WHO entitled REPLACE: in practice, planning the replacement of added trans fats with unsaturated fats by 2023.
To date, the maximum limit of added trans fats is set at 2 grams per 100 grams of lipids in food for the consumer. However, it should be noted that according to a recent study, for every 2% of calories from trans fats consumed daily, the risk of heart disease increases by 23%(1).
Foods containing trans fats
– whole milk (even if in limited quantities) and its derivatives, cream
– meat of ruminants, offal and foods made from it such as sausages
(through industrial processes)
– margarines and/or hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated fats
– industrial (and inferior) baked goods, confectionery, savouries and snacks (always read the label)
– frozen French fries (always read the label)
– ready-to-eat meals, such as breaded or coated foods (if you can’t check the label, best to avoid them)
Tips for consuming more good fats, in a more sustainable way, by replacing saturated fats and eliminating trans fats
1) Reduce (if you can’t eliminate) red meat consumption, especially industrial sausages
2) Reduce (if you can’t eliminate) industrial products such as sweet and/or salty snacks that do not carry the words “0% trans fat”.
3) Because fish are at risk of extinction, choose only “sustainable fish”; and to avoid damaging their valuable omega-3 content, don’t fry them; to save more fish you can reduce your portions while still getting the most out of them by striving to eat the fish skin as well (find out why and how of this tip here).
4) Salmon is considered a very healthy fish as it is rich in omega-3; on the other hand, if it comes from intensive farming, maybe it would be better to prefer something else: just for healthy purposes. A rich salad, with 2 walnuts, half an avocado (find out when to buy avocados in season by clicking here), purslane (read about its properties here and here) and flax seeds, would be a valid alternative.
5) For cooking use extra virgin olive oil, and raw flax oil for cold seasoning; leave butter only for special occasions (if you miss the flavor you can add some seasoned cheese or simply some milk). And for fries? Peanut oil or coconut oil would be the best option to avoid smoke point; but you know, to obtain a healthy nutrition, you should consume fried food very very rarely.
6) For breakfast, instead of the “winning” (and literally destructive) pair of cappuccino and croissant, choose a bowl of oatmeal enriched with almond cream, vegetable milk, fresh fruit and nuts, such as walnuts; instead of the other dreaded pair of bacon and eggs, opt for eggs, avocado and vegetables.
7) Add vegetable milk or skim milk to your coffee to replace heavy cream; but instead of a cookie, eat 2 nuts as a treat.
9) Instead of french fries or deep-fried peanuts, opt for natural peanuts in the shell; or eat a handful of olives with veggies in a healthy dip, made with extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice and black pepper.
10) Eggs are healthy and tasty, but when we use them as an ingredient in various preparations, such as cakes, meatballs and cookies, we can replace them with chia seeds: they are rich in omega 3 and have excellent properties as a binder / thickener. To learn about other egg substitutes see here)
11) Learn to choose your food, but not only for the fats: better a yogurt, even whole, organic and rich in probiotics, than processed cheeses even if they are called “light”; better a portion of fresh sardines, rather than farm-raised smoked salmon; better an organic egg (or farmer’s) than conventional salami; better a knob of butter than an industrial stock cube… The examples are many and if you follow CHE Food Revolution you will discover many useful things for your healthy and sustainable diet.
Enjoy your healthy fats and have a good revolution
1) Islam MA, Amin MN, Siddiqui SA, Hossain MP, Sultana F, Kabir MR. Trans fatty acids and lipid profile: A serious risk factor to cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes. Diabetes Metab Syndr. 2019;13(2):1643-1647. doi:10.1016/j.dsx.2019.03.033
2) Siri-Tarino PW, Sun Q, Hu FB, Krauss RM. Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010;91(3):535-546. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.27725