There are a lot of unfortunate rumors surrounding fats and oils, which can make them complete taboo for many who watch their diets or watch their weights. Many of these rumors are carry-overs from studies in the ‘80s that seemed to show that fat in the diet contributed to health-issues that are now believed to be caused by excess sugars in the diet, not excess fats.
As people start to address these misconceptions fats turn into a complicated and confusing topic that most people would rather just avoid. While many diets are higher in fats, and higher in harmful fats, fats and oils play an important role in the body, and should never be completely avoided.
Not all Fats are created equal
Contrary to popular belief, fat in the diet does not directly correlate to fat on the body. Fat is an energy yielding nutrient like carbohydrates, so a high volume of fats can contribute to body weight, but the body does not store the fat that it takes in. This is largely because there are a lot of places in the body where fat is incorporated into healthy and necessary structures. Every cell in the body contains fat, especially nerve cells in the brain and the nervous system.
The problem that people run into is where fat comes into the diet and what kind of fat it is. There are several different kinds of fats, some are unhealthy, but most are beneficial. This article will only discuss the three main kinds of fats, but many of them have their own categories and sub-categories.
Without getting too much into the chemistry of fats, fats are organized into groups based on their molecular composition. A long string of carbons has several hydrogen atoms linked to it, making it more or less solid – the more hydrogen that are attached to the central carbon chain, the more solid the fat. Though this may sound complicated, it is fairly easy to tell the two major groups apart just by sight (As stated above, there are actually three kinds, but only two occur naturally in food. The other kind will be discussed last).
Saturated Fats – Animal Fats
Saturated fats are fats whose central chain of carbons can accommodate no more hydrogen. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and are found almost exclusively in animal fats. These are of little help to the body, and can accumulate in the blood when consumed in excess, which can lead to heart problems.
Red meats are a great source of protein and iron, however, so instead of trying to ditch red meat, consider buying leaner ground meat, trimming fat off of steaks, and grill meat when possible, instead of pan-frying it. While many professional and home-cooks alike swear by frying a steak, burger, or chop in its own fat is the only way to get the right flavor and texture, it also makes the meat retain more of the fats that our bodies are better off without.
Unsaturated Fats – Plant and Fish Oils
Unsaturated fats contain areas on the carbon chain where hydrogen could be attached, but is not, making them liquid at room temperature. Unsaturated fats can be mono-unsaturated or poly-unsaturated, depending on how many unoccupied spaces there are for hydrogen on the carbon chain. While this does have some dietary complications, it’s a little too complicated to get into here.
Unsaturated fats do not accumulate in the blood the way that saturated fats can, and unsaturated fats can even help the heart and fight inflammation. A healthy dose of these fats can also help the body absorb vitamins found in other foods. Unsaturated fats are found in nuts and seeds, and even in avocados, so adding any of these as a regular snack can help incorporate more of this healthy fat into any diet.
Olive oil, peanut oil, and other oils commonly used for frying also contain unsaturated fats, so pan-frying meat, mushrooms, vegetables, or potatoes in one of these oils can also help get the right kind of fat into a diet (not that all fried foods are healthy, but more on that later).
Fish is also known for being high in omega-3, a kind of fatty acid that the body needs, but can’t produce on its own. This is easy to confuse with omega-6, another beneficial form of fatty acid found in many of the non-fish sources listed above. Many people aren’t wild about fish, but fish-oil capsules can be purchased from many grocery or health food stores.
Trans-Fats – The real villain
The fats and oils that are often found in many processed foods like packaged baked goods and butter-substitutes are often modified to affect their texture or cost of production. Some of these modifications can make them more difficult for the body to process, or can make them higher-yielders of empty carbohydrates – the real cause of weight gain. The altered chemical state of trans-fats makes them more likely to accumulate in the blood the way that saturated fats can, increasing the risk for some heart complications.
These fats, often called “trans-fats” – or “partially hydrogenated oils” in ingredients labels — are usually made by adding extra hydrogen atoms to empty spaces along the carbon chain of an unsaturated fat. This makes the oil a semi-solid, contributing to that conspicuously unattainable texture of many store-bought baked goods and fast-food items like french fries.
Because of the rising public awareness of the dangers of trans-fats, the inclusion of partially hydrogenated oils – or its absence – in food products is now much easier to spot than it once was, which makes it easier to avoid in the grocery store. For the same reasons, many sit-down restaurants, and even some fast-food places, have stopped using trans-fats to fry foods, though it still might be best to go for menu items that are baked or roasted instead.
While there is some debate about whether or not fat is chemically “addictive” it adds a lot to the flavor and texture of many foods. While some diets call for an end to fat, this energy-yielding nutrient is virtually everywhere, which is actually a good thing considering most if it is actually really beneficial to human health. Avoid saturated fats when possible, and avoid trans-fats at all costs. Beyond that, fry away.