There are a lot of foods out there that many people, whether trying to lose weight or just trying to live their best life, have started to avoid on principle. Some of these foods are actually bad, but others are more… biologically ambiguous. Why do we stay away from these foods? Some of them are unfairly slandered by scientific shorthand, while others are part of changing views on medicine. Knowing the difference between these foods can help you to avoid stripping things from your diet that aren’t that bad, and can even help you eat more foods that are good for you but may have gotten a bad name.
Many people who are trying to lose fat try to avoid fat in their foods — called dietary fat — and indeed it used to be thought that extra fat in the diet was stored in the body, which we now know is not true. Fat is an energy-yielding nutrient, so it can contribute extra calories to the diet, but it still has to be broken down by the body. This process is not one-hundred percent energy efficient, and the body needs to burn some energy to do it, so fat in the diet does not directly relate to fat on the body.
There are also different kinds of fat, and some of those fats are good for you, as fat is a part of every cell in the body, and is especially important to the structure of organs and parts of the nervous system. Too much saturated fat, the kind that comes from red meat, is not good for a person, but it’s fine in moderation.
While avoiding all fats would be terribly unhealthy, as well as virtually impossible, there is one kind of fats that deserves its bad reputation. Trans-fats, or “partially hydrogenated oils” are chemically altered oils common in junk food and fast food, and can do a lot of harm to the body, so it’s best to try to avoid. Fortunately, many foods now include very visible labels stating that they are free of trans-fats. If there’s no clear label, check the ingredients.
The Good, the Bad, and the Cholesterol
People used to give all cholesterol a bad name, until we started sorting it into “good cholesterol” and “bad cholesterol,” but it’s more confusing than that, because “good and bad cholesterols” aren’t even cholesterols.
Cholesterol is a hormone that is produced naturally in the body, and is an important building block for many vital chemicals. Too much cholesterol can cause a number of health problems, as the chemical is often deposited in blood vessels or in vital organs if there is too much for the body to process properly.
One of the things that cholesterols are used to build is “lipoproteins.” When people talk about “good and bad cholesterol” they’re really talking about lipoproteins, which, as the name suggests, are also made up of fats and proteins. The job of lipoproteins is to transport fats and other chemicals through the body, but the functions of lipoproteins are different, as are their shapes.
“Very Low Density Lipoproteins,” or “VLDLs” are the “bad cholesterol,” largely because they usually carry fats to storage areas in the body, particularly areas where it shouldn’t be. Due to their low density, VLDLs are very large, which can cause them to get stuck as they navigate blood vessels, which can lead to serious medical issues – though that may be the content of a later article. “Low Density Lipoproteins,” or “LDLs” are slightly smaller than VLDLs, but do the same job, and so are also considered “bad cholesterol.”
“High Density Lipoproteins,” or “HDLs” are the “good cholesterol” because they carry fats – as well as VLDLs – to the liver where the body takes them apart for parts and disposes the rest instead of accumulating it in the body.
The trick to managing good and bad cholesterols is to know where to find the good stuff and how to avoid the bad stuff. The bad news is that good and bad cholesterols aren’t on ingredients labels the way that other healthy foods like unsaturated fats or whole grains are. Fortunately, good and bad cholesterol roughly track to healthy and unhealthy fats, as discussed above, with bad cholesterols being found in the highest concentration in saturated fats – those that come from animal sources – and good cholesterol being found in the highest concentration in unsaturated fats – those that come from plant sources.
The good news about cholesterol is that if you have a healthy relationship with your health care provider, you already know whether or not your cholesterol levels are a problem, and what you should be doing to keep your numbers under control.
Is Drinking Alcohol Worth it?
Very few dietitians recommend staying away from alcohol altogether, but a lot of pressure is placed on not overstepping one’s boundaries. Alcohol is an energy yielding nutrient, so it can contribute calories to the diet, but there’s more to think about than just calories.
Alcohol is a lipid solvent, and all cells of the body contain lipids. This means that if you take in alcohol faster than your body can process it (around one serving-size per hour) it’s left to circulate in the blood doing damage to the body.
A toxic middle-step to alcohol metabolism also causes your liver to postpone other important jobs to privilege the handling of alcohol in order to remove it from the body as fast as possible. While the alcohol is in the liver it causes damage to the vital organ, killing parts of it off in extreme cases.
Some alcoholic beverages, most notably wine, have been found to have multiple health benefits, and moderate alcohol consumption is a characteristic of almost all of the healthiest lifestyles on the planet.
If alcoholism runs in your family or you have other health conditions or on certain medications, however, it may be best to avoid alcohol altogether, or at least not let promises of a long life become an excuse for drinking too much. Most of the health benefits of wine can be had from grapes and grape juice, or aged fruits like raisins and prunes.