Understanding Fats and Oils

The Basics

Understanding the world of fats and oils requires diving into a complex world.  People often find it daunting to determine exactly what's best and the glamorized media headlines with minimal data can be cause for confusion.  Here I hope to introduce a few of the basic terms, as well as to point out some things to look for so that shopping can become easier!   Photo courtesy of Turtle Dragon Herb and Tea

Fats, or lipids, come in solid or liquid form and are insoluble in water and are 9 calories per gram.  All fats have some combination of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, but it is the proportion of these that determine whether the whole is considered "saturated" or "unsaturated".  

Fats are essential to our system, as they help us break down and transport certain vitamins, make up the essential fatty acids that our body can't make on its own, maintain healthy skin and hair, and help regulate blood cholesterol levels, among other things.  It is their remarkable ability to store energy that has made them a modern day enemy.

Breaking it Down

Monounsaturated Fatty Acids (MUFA) - Increase HDL, Decrease LDL

     Some examples: olive oil, canola (rapeseed) oil, olives, avocado, almond butter

Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFA) - Decrease HDL, Decrease LDL

     Some examples: sunflower oil, safflower oil, corn oils (vegetable oils)

Saturated Fatty Acids (SFA) - Increase/Maintain HDL, Increase LDL

     Some examples: full fat animal products (butter, dairy, meats), some processed foods

Trans Fats - Decrease HDL, Increase LDL

     Some examples: hydrogenated vegetable oils, rumen of cow/sheep

That's great but what does it all mean?  Well these four categories of fats are actually based on the various ways in which fats and oils regulate blood cholesterol.  HDLs are high-density lipoproteins, the "good" type of cholesterol because they transport excess cholesterol from the blood to the liver (where it is then removed from the body).  LDLs are low-density lipoproteins, the "bad" type of cholesterol because they are the primary transporters of cholesterol and can contribute to the buildup of plaque in the arteries.  

All in all... HDL good, LDL bad, which means MUFA good and Trans Fats bad.  

Some General Tips

It's important to first be armed with this knowledge on how fats and cholesterol works together since both play an important role in heart health.  The take home message is not to shift to eating only foods with MUFA, not only would that be very difficult to enjoy, but remember that fats are healthy for your system in moderation.  Instead focus on these tips:

  • Try to keep caloric intake of fats and oils at about 25-30% of total calories in the diet.  This means not exceeding 50g for 1500 calorie intake, 60 g for 1800 cal, 66 g for 2000 cal, and 83 for 2500 cal.
  • Read the labels of the foods you're buying!  Learn about whether saturated fat or trans fats are in these foods.  Especially look out for processed foods since we tend to think less about those at the time of purchase.
  • Since olive oil is made from a fruit, it is sensitive to air, heat, and light so store it in a dark glass or opaque container in a cool place.  If it has gone bad it will have a buttery flavor.
  • A lot of the spreadable butters now have a better composition than plain old butter so for toast or a baked potato try something like Olivio or Smart Balance.  Every small step helps.

All in All

Well that was a lot of information on fats and oils!  And only the tip of the iceberg...  I hope you can sit back and digest this information until we delve further into the topic.  Please let me know if you have any questions or concerns!