Fat is on Your Freeway. Understanding Good and Bad Fats

Gone are the days when we simply looked at the Total Fat value on a nutrition label and could tell if a food was healthy or unhealthy. If the fat was too high, it was bad for us; if the fat was low, it was good for us. Done!

Well, it’s not the 1990s anymore. We now know there are many different types of fat—and we need to distinguish between them. For example, a fat could be saturated or a trans fat. Or it could be an unsaturated fat, which is an umbrella term for many different types of fat, including: monounsaturated fatty acids, polyunsaturated fatty acids—and Omega-3, Omega-6, and Omega-9 fatty acids.

Omega-WHAT? Sounds like Omega Supreme, the old-school Transformer that transforms into a giant space rocket!

No, these fats are not the names of Transformers, even though some may sound like it.

Not only do we have to decipher their pronunciation, we also have to figure out which are healthy, which are bad, how much are in our food, and how much we need to eat—or not eat—everyday!

This can wrinkle one’s brain. So here is my attempt to unwrinkle it.

Evil Fat
Saturated fat and trans fat are the bad guys—the antagonists of our story. These fats are solid at room temperature and include foods like lard, shortening, tallow, stick butter, coconut oil, marbled meats, and partially hydrogenated oils.

Saturated and trans fats are bad because if you eat them, your cholesterol levels increase. This could lead to blockage in your arteries.

Imagine these villainous lipids sludging around your bloodstream like semi-trucks or “OVERSIZE LOADS” on the freeway. They move slower than the rest of the traffic, take up a crapload of space, and impede your blood’s progress as it seeks to drive downtown and deliver oxygen, nutrients, and other cargo to the heart, brain, or any other one of your body’s megalopolis of organs. Too much evil fat leads to nasty bottlenecks and traffic jams, restricting your bloodmobiles from getting to their important destinations. If they get stuck in traffic, say goodbye to downtown—power’s out—and say hello to blood clots, aneurysms, strokes, hemorrhages—AND the number one cause of death: heart disease.

Good Fats
Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, are the protagonists. The good guys. These fats are are liquid at room temperature. Common food sources include fish, seeds, nuts, nut butters, and vegetable oils. These good fats zoom down your body’s interstate, forcing semi-trucks and oversized loads to pull over at truck stops and weigh stations (where they belong). Unsaturated fats help improve our cholesterol levels and protect us from heart disease, clearing the freeway for our bloodmobiles to make it downtown.

How Much do we Need?
According to the latest dietary guidelines, we need about 40-80 grams of total fat per day (about 20-35 percent of our total daily calories). Simply put, we shouldn’t eat more than 20 grams of saturated fat per day. All other fats should be good fats.

Trans fat will be banned from the food supply by January 1, 2020 (they are no longer recognized as safe by the FDA), so you probably won’t need to watch out for these vilifying fats much longer—unless you’re eating deep-fried pigs feet at the county fair—then you might have other issues to worry about.

To find out how much unsaturated fat is in a food, look at the total fat value on the nutrition label, subtract the saturated and trans fat—and presto, not only are you the next John Nash, you’ll also know the amount of good fat.

So the next time you see a high total fat value on a nutrition label, don’t freak out. It’s not the 1990s anymore. Look closer. Most of the fat could be your body’s protagonists clearing up your freeway, enabling your bloodmobiles to cruise downtown and do their job: keeping you alive.

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Antioxidants: Cleaning up Your Body’s City Streets

The word Antioxidants is tattooed everywhere we shop for foodfrom cereal boxes and sports drinks to waters and nutmilks—you’d think consuming them would lead to immortality. But through all this antioxidant hype from food marketers, there’s one question that comes to my mind:

What in the hell is an antioxidant?

As a registered dietitian, I don’t pretend to know everything there is to know about nutrition. The technical definition of antioxidant should probably be stored in my permanent dietetic memory banks. But the fact is, it isn’t. Ever since I’ve become a parent of twins and turned 40-something, my memory bank only seems to store information it has to. So when I want to remember something scientific or technical, I make a point to translate the complexities into information that’s easy—and more fun—to understand.

That said, antioxidants are vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients found in food that help protect our cells from things called free radicals. Free radicals are troublemakers. They pollute our body, cause disease, and make us age faster—and no one likes that. Think of them as vandals, terrorists, and criminals. They roam around our body’s streets, carrying guns, knives, sledgehammers, steel pipes, and bottles of spray paint, damaging our cells and DNA, and causing a myriad of diseases—like heart disease and cancer.

The antioxidants, on the other hand, do the opposite. Think of them as your body’s police squad and construction crew. Like the police, they cruise around, patrolling the body, and arresting the free radical thugs from smashing through windows or blowing up buildings. They are also like construction workers because they repair everything the free radicals destroy—kind of like how a construction crew fills potholes, fixes broken down power lines, or adds a fresh coat of paint to old, graffiti-laden buildings.

Antioxidants are the good guys—the Avengers to our Thanos. You can find them in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and beans. They come in many identities, including: vitamin C, vitamin E, carotenoids, quercetin, catechins, and anthocyanins (just to name a few).

So eat more salads, grill more vegetables, snack on mixed nuts, and hork down fruit instead of candy bars. The more colors you eat, the more diverse your antioxidant supply, and the more superheroes you’ll have to fight off the bad guys. You probably won’t achieve eternal life, but you might just live a little longer to enjoy the many fruits that life has to offer.

That is the simplest way I can define an antioxidant. I may have left out some details, but I think it’s close enough—unless we’re obsessed with biological and physiological systems and want to dig into the science, which is probably interesting. But for me, I’m saving space in my brain for other things.

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