If there’s one thing I hate about nutrition more than anything else, it’s that the word “fat” refers to both an essential nutrient and the fact that a person is overweight. First of all, it makes no sense – you wouldn’t look at a muscle bound guy and say he’s protein, would you?
Second of all, it gives a bad name to one of the most essential nutrients your body needs – fat. Fats perform a huge variety of functions in the body, including:
- Providing heat and energy
- Providing padding and insulation for your organs
- Aiding in the absorption of fat soluble vitamins, including A, D, E and K
- Providing the essential fatty acids that your body can’t produce on its own (together referred to as vitamin F)
What happens if you don’t get enough fat? How about:
- Skin disorders
- Hair loss
- Impaired growth and reproductive functions
- Kidney and prostate disorders
- Menstrual disturbances
Why does fat get such a bad rap?
Like I said above, fats get a bad name because people associate the word with obesity. And to be fair, there is some merit to this. The difference (and I’m sure you’ve all heard this before) is in the types of fats you eat – good fats vs. bad fats.
Real quick – before I start talking about good fats vs. bad fats you should know about the structure of fat molecules. Basically, a fat molecule is like a head (glycerol) with three tails (fatty acid chains). The tails are made up of what are known as hydrocarbon chains, and it’s the tails that separate the good fats from the bad fats.
By the way – don’t be scared of the science-y diagrams that follow. I tried to explain them as clearly as possible.
Good Fats aka Unsaturated Fats
Characteristics: liquid at room temperature
Found in: plant oils, avocados, nuts
Good fats look like this:
See that C=C part on there, right where the whole thing bends? That right there is what makes it a good fat. Basically, when these fat molecules collect, they stay very rigid, which means they can’t easily get compacted. That’s the key, because….
Bad Fats aka Saturated Fats
Characteristics: solid at room temperature
Found in: butter, meat, tropical oils (palm and coconut)
Bad fats look like this:
Notice how there’s no C=C? What this means is that as saturated fat collects, it can fold in on itself, meaning you can fit a lot more of them in a tiny spot. This also means you have to work out a lot harder to get rid of them all. See the problem here?
Worst Fats aka Trans Fats
Characteristics: spreadable at room temperature (think margarine)
Found in: processed foods, fried foods
The worst fats of all look like this:
There’s a whole long history behind trans fats that I won’t get into here, but basically they are unsaturated fats that have been artificially turned into saturated fats (hence the area in the picture where the H is on the wrong side).
Trans fats were invented in the 1920s to serve a double purpose – to make food taste better and to use up a huge supply of soybeans (people started growing them in massive quantities for protein). The problem with trans fats is that your body literally cannot metabolize them, so they stay in your blood stream for a long time and are even harder to get rid of than saturated fats.
Trans fats have fallen under harsh scrutiny over the last couple of years, and now if you look at most food labels you’ll see 0g trans fat. However, leave it to the food industry to outright lie on the one thing most people look at for nutrition information!
Nutritional label standards allow you to write 0g of something if the food contains less than .5 grams of whatever substance, meaning it’s still there, just not on the label. To find out if your food has trans fats, read the ingredients. If it says “partially hydrogenated” anything, put it back on the shelf – it’s got trans fats.
So that’s a basic explanation about why fats are really not that bad for you, if you’re careful. Stick around for Part 2 to find out why, despite a bevy of LOW FAT food options available every which way, America is still the fattest country in the world! (hint – it has to do with our gross misunderstanding of the word fat!)