Know your fats!

The South African Department of Health has recently announced legislation to ban trans fatty acids in locally produced foods. What exactly are trans fats and are all fats bad for us?

Most foods today contain some form of fat. But more than just the amount of fat, it’s the types of fat you eat that really matter. Bad fats increase cholesterol and your risk of certain diseases, while good fats protect your heart and support overall health. Despite what you may have been told, fat isn’t always the bad guy in the waistline wars. Bad fats, such as trans fats and saturated fats, are guilty of the unhealthy things all fats have been blamed for—weight gain, clogged arteries, and so forth. But good fats such as the monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, and omega-3s have the opposite effect. In fact, healthy fats play a huge role in helping you manage your moods, stay on top of your mental game, fight fatigue, and even control your weight.

The answer isn’t cutting out the fat—it’s learning to make healthy choices and to replace bad fats with good ones that promote health and well-being.

Making sense of dietary fat

To understand good and bad fats, you need to know the names of the players and some information about them. There are four major types of fats:

  • monounsaturated fats (good choice)
  • polyunsaturated fats (good choice)
  • trans fats (bad choice)
  • saturated fats (poor choice)

Monounsaturated fats (omega-9) and polyunsaturated fats (omega-6 and omega-3) are known as the essential fats, or “good fats” because they are good for your heart, your cholesterol, and your overall health. Omega-3 is recognised for its ability to help protect against coronary artery disease and helps to lower blood pressure levels. Foods that contain healthy fat include olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds, and fatty fish such as salmon.

Saturated fats (present in animal products) and trans fats are known as the “bad fats” because they increase your risk of disease and elevate cholesterol. Appearance-wise, saturated fats and trans fats tend to be solid at room temperature (think of butter or traditional stick margarine), while monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats tend to be liquid (think of olive or avocado oil). Many people think of margarine when they picture trans fats, and it’s true that some margarines are loaded with them. However, the primary source of trans fats in the Western diet comes from commercially prepared baked goods and snack foods:

When focusing on healthy fats, a good place to start is eliminating your consumption of trans fats. A trans fat is a normal fat molecule that has been twisted and deformed during a process called hydrogenation. During this process, liquid vegetable oil is heated and combined with hydrogen gas. Partially hydrogenating vegetable oils makes them more stable and less likely to spoil, which is very good for food manufacturers—and very bad for you.

No amount of trans fats is healthy. Trans fats contribute to major health problems, from heart disease to cancer.

For decades, health professionals have told us that a diet high in saturated fats raises blood cholesterol levels and increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. However, recent studies have made headlines by casting doubt on those claims, concluding that people who eat lots of saturated fat do not experience more cardiovascular disease than those who eat less.

So does that mean it’s OK to eat saturated fat now?

No. What these studies highlighted is that when cutting down on saturated fats in your diet, it’s important to replace them with the right type of fat. For example, swapping animal fats for vegetable oils—such as replacing butter with olive oil—can help to lower cholesterol and reduce your risk for disease. However, swapping animal fats for refined carbohydrates, such as replacing your breakfast bacon with a slice of white bread, won’t have the same benefits. That’s because eating refined carbohydrates or sugary foods can also have a negative effect on cholesterol levels and your risk for heart disease.

In short, nothing has changed. Reducing your intake of saturated fats can still improve your cardiovascular health—as long as you take care to replace it with good fat rather than refined carbs.

So to summarise - don’t go no fat, go good fat

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* Results may vary from person to person