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Fat Chance
Article - Nutrition

Understand the difference between saturated fats and trans fats

On KQED radio the other day, I heard a discussion about New York?s proposed ban of trans fats from restaurant food. One of the interviewees perpetuated a common misconception by interchanging ?trans fat? and ?saturated fat? in her conversation ? as if to imply that both warranted equal caution.
This exacerbates confusion for consumers. Often, when research is undertaken, researchers rarely make a distinction whether the benefits seen from a decrease in overall fat consumption in a diet was due to a decrease in trans fat or saturated fat. Nutrition recommendations often state that people should reduce their intake of trans fats and saturated fats. I?d like to clear up some of the confusion.
While trans fats and saturated fat are both solid at room temperature, their similarities end there. Trans fats are formed when unstable oils undergo a process called hydrogenation (when liquid oils are converted to a solid in order to increase shelf life, reduce cost, and improve flavor and texture). Manufacturers win and consumers lose, as these oils are transformed into substances that are very harmful to human health. Trans fat is known to increase blood levels of LDL (?bad? cholesterol) and reduce HDL (?good? cholesterol). Trans fats have been found to be a cause of clogged arteries, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

The bad rap for saturated fat and cholesterol

Breast milk contains 53% fat, 25% saturated fat. If saturated fat were so harmful to our health, why would breast milk contain such a large percentage of saturated fat and cholesterol? Clinical research shows that both saturated fat and cholesterol are essential for growth in babies, especially for healthy brain development.
Saturated fat is also important for the following functions: 
  • Preferred fuel for the heart
  • Antimicrobial and antifungal actions
  • Cell membrane regeneration
  • Building bone density by putting calcium into the bones
  • Protecting the liver from toxins
For years, all saturated fat was dubbed ?bad,? mainly because of cholesterol. Firstly, note that plant-based saturated fats such as coconut oil and palm oil do not contain cholesterol. Moreover, cholesterol is not a harmful, but rather a protective substance. Cholesterol helps:
  • Build strong bones and muscles
  • To aid digestion
  • Boost cognitive function
  • Build hormones for libido and fertility and other endocrine functions
  • Repair tissue
  • Keep cell membranes intact
  • Regulate blood sugar
  • Support immune function

Choosing your fats wisely

Hopefully, you?re getting your good fats from whole foods. However, for those who consume processed foods, beware of commercial packaged foods that state ?no trans fats.? While food labels are now going to be required to list trans fat content, food manufacturers are allowed to include 500 mg of trans fats and label their product ?trans fat-free.? By decreasing serving size, manufacturers can keep trans fats under this amount to deceive consumers into thinking their products contain no trans fat. When shopping for products, read the ingredients and avoid any that contains hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil in order to cut out trans fat.
Most importantly, focus on a whole food diet containing healthy fats - including a wide range of fats such as omega 3 from fish oil, monounsaturated fat from olive oil, and even some saturated fat from good quality sources such as virgin coconut oil and pastured animal foods such as eggs, whole milk, and animal protein/fat.  Moderation and quality are the keys to fat consumption.

As a Nutrition Consultant, I wonder how many people think I?m crazy when they first hear me speak and recommend eating animal fat. However, an interesting thing often happens ? as they hear the scientific data to back it up, they are relieved ? as their intuition was always telling them but they weren?t listening ? that animal fat can be good. Try it!  Add some high quality animal fat to your diet; such as butter, egg yolks, or cream ? make sure it?s from pastured animals with no additives and of the highest quality you can find.  This is not an excuse to eat a bacon and cheese pizza ? I mean the highest quality available. Start slow in case your liver/gall bladder are under functioning. Try it and tell me how it feels. If you?re like most people I know, you will feel more nourished than you have in a long time. Trust your intuition while listening to your body.

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