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The skinny on fat (I know..it’s an obvious play on words)

Blogs on butter tarts and cookies are sure a lot of fun to write, but I really need to start blogging about my true passion  – nutrition.

I thought we would begin with the subject of fat.  Knowing how to make good choices about dietary fat becomes difficult because there are just so many opinions on what is healthy and what is not healthy.  Is butter better because it’s natural?  Is oil better than a solid fat?  It’s enough to confuse anyone.

Please remember that this blog is intended for the healthy adult.  If you have diabetes or heart disease and you are not sure what you should be eating, you need to see a dietitian who specializes in these conditions.

First of all, dietary fat is important for your body.  You need a certain amount of fat in your diet in order to help your body absorb certain vitamins (A,D, E and K).  Fat also gives your body needed energy, and in the case of those still growing, helps our bodies grow and develop.  So it is healthy to have some amount of fat in our diets.

However, not all fats are considered equal, and some forms are definitely better choices than others from the perspective of health.  To begin our discussion, let’s see what types of fats are out there.   Dietary fat comes in three different types  – trans fat, saturated and unsaturated.  Each type has a different effect on your body.

Trans fats historically have been found in commercially prepared baked goods, hard margarines and shortenings.  Trans fats have been shown to contribute to heart disease by raising the bad blood cholesterol (LDL) and lowering good blood cholesterol (HDL).

Although there are small amount of trans fats that occur naturally in animal and dairy products, the main source of trans fat has been as a result of an industrial food production process called hydrogenation.  Hydrogenation takes liquid oils and makes them more solid by adding additional hydrogen atoms.  (Remember high school chemistry and seeing the diagrams or the films demonstrating the double bonds between the carbon atoms being broken and then filled up by hydrogen atoms?  No?  Sometimes I find it hard to contain my inner geek…)  If you remember the very cheap margarines of the old days, they were often brick hard when refrigerated, and just a little less brick hard if you left them on the counter (I remember the margarine splintering as I cheerily put it in my mixing bowl, making cookies for my dad who unfortunately was a heart patient.)  This brick hard configuration was because of the process of extreme hydrogenation (no double bonds left to for a stray hydrogen atom to attach to in that cookie batter…okay, that is the last chemistry reference).

Historically food manufacturers used the process of hydrogenation to increase product shelf life and improve product texture.  Not all hydrogenation occurrs to the degree of my margarine example.  There are also partially hydrogenated oils that were used in prepared foods such as commercially prepared baked goods, shortenings and margarines.  This process allows manufacturers to take an oil and make it more suitable for use, such as a spreadable product that customers want and that may be cheaper than butter.  However, in the process of hydrogenation, trans fats are produced and these trans fats have been found to have an extremely detrimental effect on our heart and circulatory health.

Very recently (September 2018) Health Canada banned the use partially hydrogenated oils in our foods, making it illegal for manufacturers to add partially hydrogenated oils to foods sold in Canada.  This is very good news for Canadians as we all should be aiming to have no trans fats in our diets.

Key takeaway for trans fat – work to eliminate trans fat from your diet – Health Canada has made it easy for you.

Saturated fats typically come from animal and dairy products, but are also found in palm oil, coconut oil, lard and shortening. Saturated fats contribute to heart disease by increasing the blood’s bad cholesterol (LDL).

To eat more healthy, we should decrease our intake of saturated fat.  This means choosing dairy products that are lower in fat (skim vs whole milk for example), or choosing lean meats vice well marbled meats.  Many Canadians eat far too much meat (we will cover that in another blog) so for the sake of limiting saturated fat intake and keeping our bodies healthy, we should also choose smaller portions of animal products.

Key takeaway for saturated fatdecrease your intake of saturated fat.

Unsaturated fats are classed as either polyunsaturated or monounsaturated.  You can find polyunsaturated fats in nuts and seeds, fatty fishes (trout, herring, mackerel, salmon), corn/canola/soybean flax/safflower oils.  Monounsaturated fats are in nuts and seeds/avocados, and olive/canola/peanut/sesame/safflower/sunflower oils.

Unsaturated fats help keep our bodies and our hearts healthy. Studies have shown when we increase our intake of unsaturated fats and decrease saturated/trans fats, LDL cholesterol can be lowered and the ratio of LDL to HDL cholesterol in the blood becomes better.

Key takeaway for unsaturated fatschoose unsaturated fat more often; use these items in place of saturated fats in your diet.

A good rule of thumb to help you remember when choosing among fats – its health benefits are on a sliding scale based on how liquid the fat is at room temperature.  In general, as fats range from liquid to solid fat at room temperature they decrease in health benefits.  In addition, you want to consume more vegetable based fats than animal based fats.
It’s really quite simple – animal fats are normally solid or at least semi-solid at room temperature (think butter, animal fat left in the bottom of the frying pan after cooking is also semi-solid when it cools to room temperature).  Limit these in your diet as much as possible.  Fats that are liquid at room temperature include many of the vegetable oils in the unsaturated fat category.  This is where your dietary fat should come from.
So, in general,
oils = liquid at room temperature = plant based = unsaturated = choose more often
solid fat at room temperature = animal based (generally) = saturated = choose less often or not at all
Where does that leave our baking blog?  Most bakers will tell you that oils cannot be substituted in their recipes, and that even a plant based margarine cannot be used in recipes because of its water content.  Ask a pastry chef to use canola oil in place of a solid fat in a pie crust and you may be subject to considerable professional resistance because it is the small marbles of solid fat that give pastry its flaky texture.  The key, like anything in life, becomes balance and moderation.  The lion’s share of your energy intake needs to come from food items that support your body’s nutrition needs.  For those times when you have room to include a baked treat, then in my humble opinion, it becomes a matter of taste.  Spring water will always be better for you than wine, but no one expects you to drink spring water all of the time, just most of the time.
As a close, I will test some baked good recipes that feature healthy fats and post them on this blog in coming weeks.  I invite you to do the same and give me your feedback.
Until next time
Yours in avocado and canola,
Victoria

2 thoughts on “The skinny on fat (I know..it’s an obvious play on words)”

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