By Karin Krisher
I really like pizza. I like the sauce and the crust, but mostly I like the cheese. Greasy, delicious cheese. I also really like avocados. We all know which one of those is probably the smarter choice for a conscious eater. But why? They both have a bunch of fat, right?
I fancy myself a fairly intelligent nutrient consumer, especially in terms of meeting my vitamin, protein and carbohydrate needs. Fats? Not so much. I’d trade an olive oil brownie for a butter one any day.
Maybe I’m just not paying careful enough attention. Fats, after all, are confusing.
First of all, how can fat be simultaneously good for you and bad for you? There’s a reason we crave it—we need it. In small amounts. But the benefits you get depend on the type of fat you’re eating.
Today, our participation in the global food production system allows a lot of fats into our lives, and we need to choose wisely which are the right ones. In the good fat vs. bad fat debate, maybe we should think about fats the way we think about living in a city. You know that good is everywhere, but you’re wary.
Good Fat vs. Bad Fat
So, what’s the difference? Let’s start with the yuck: Trans fat. Banned in New York and several American restaurants, trans fat resides in many a doughnut and cake. Trans fat is unsaturated (see below), but features hydrogen molecules on opposite sides of the carbon bonds, while in good unsaturated fats, the molecules are on the same side. The chemistry is tough to get through, so we’ll spare you: the trans fats don’t treat your cells the same way, like a crappy ex that made you feel bogged down. And maybe a little ashamed.
That’s not to say they aren’t sometimes good to you. Some trans fat can be slightly beneficial, depending on what food it’s in. Still trans fats, as a group, are a real bunch of jerks.
Unsaturated fats are found in foods of the earth, like nuts, avocados, olive oil (olives) and the like. But coconuts feature saturated fats (a good reminder to always look it up if you aren’t sure!) Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats can both be good fats for you, but too much polyunsaturated fat could lower your good cholesterol (HDL) levels, while monounsaturated fats have been found in some studies to lower LDL (bad cholesterol) and raise HDL.
Most known for their ability to raise your LDL and their 35% daily value marks on nearly every snack on the market, saturated fats are found in red meat, dairy and eggs. As a huge egg fan and milk lover, I’m a bit casual about this one. For my health needs, the protein and added fat in cheese, eggs and dairy are more beneficial than harmful—a reminder to always do a bit of self-reflection before beginning a new habit, like renouncing all dairy forever.
Of course, there are also fatty acids. More on this later—it gets complicated, too!
Bottom line? It isn’t good fat vs. bad fat. It’s your body vs. your brain’s weird inability to distinguish craving from need. Fats can be good for you. They make your skin look young and feel soft, help you heal and lower your cholesterol. They help your vision, your attitude and your feeling of fullness and satiety. You need them to provide you energy and linoleic acid. So get them wherever you feel most comfortable.
And tell us about your experience with good fat in a comment!