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Know your fats: they aren't all bad

It’s time to embrace fat as a fuel. Performance nutritionist Joseph Agu gives us the skinny on the maligned macro

The terms good and bad fats are thrown around daily in the fitness industry, almost always without justification and lacking guidelines. Let me shed some light on what the phrases mean.

What makes fat good or bad?

Although the terms are quite subjective, it is generally agreed among scientists that these terms apply to the effects that certain types of fat have on cholesterol in the blood – more specifically, lipoproteins (the carriers of cholesterol in the bloodstream).

High-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL) are dubbed “good” and “bad” cholesterol respectively. Though high levels of LDL aren’t always necessarily bad, the distinction between “good” and “bad” cholesterol is valid and a good place to start.

A primer on dietary fat

Dietary fat – or technically speaking, triglycerides – are made up of one molecule of glycerol (a sugar) and three fatty acids. Their effects on health and metabolism depend primarily on their structure. Triglycerides can differ in length, which tends to reflect digestion speeds (long-chain triglycerides take longer to digest).

The number of double binds present determine whether a saturated fat is saturated or not (saturated fats never contain any double bonds, whereas unsaturated fats always have at least one double bond). There are four main subtypes of dietary fat/triglycerides to be aware of:

1. Trans

Man-made trans fatty acids, aka partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, occur mainly in margarines and junk food to give longer shelf lives. Since these fats tend to raise LDL while lowering HDL, their negative effects on cardio health mean they should be avoided. Thankfully, many fast food and supermarket chains have either considerably reduced or totally eliminated the use of these types of fats in their food.

2. Saturated

The type of fat most will be familiar with, saturated fat, is solid at room temperature, has no double bonds and occurs predominantly in animal foods such as meat, eggs and dairy products. The hysteria surrounding saturated fat has worn off since the ’80s, as it is sugar’s turn to take a bashing.

Though there are many types of saturated fats, they tend to increase both HDL (good) and LDL (bad) cholesterol. At low intakes, saturated fats are pretty neutral to health, but large amounts, particularity palmitic acid (commonly found in butter) won’t do your body any favours.

3. Monounsaturated

Monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature, have a single double bond and occur predominantly in foods of vegetable origin such as vegetable oils, nuts and seeds.

In terms of health, monounsaturated fats are considered neutral-to-beneficial, as they tend to reduce levels of LDL in the blood. As such, this type of fat should make up the bulk of your fat intake.

Peanut butters like Hi-PRO – which has the additional benefit of containing 33 per cent pure peanut protein, without the additions of whey or salt – are a great way to incorporate fats in your diet. Our recipes show you how you can use peanut butter in a variety of different ways, while helping you hit your protein goals.

4. Polyunsaturated

Polyunsaturated fats are also liquid at room temperature and have multiple double bonds. The two primary classes of these fats are the essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

Though omega-6 fatty acids are found in many animal and plant-based foods, and are relatively neutral to health, omega-3 fats acids found predominantly in fish and some plant-based foods (e.g. flax seeds) carry just about every positive health effect going.

What to take home

– Consume the majority of your fat from monounsaturated sources, with the rest split between saturated and polyunsaturated fats. Make sure as little as possible comes from man-made trans fatty acids.

– Though the quantity and type of fat that you consume on a daily basis is certainly a key factor in optimising health, it is important to note that other dietary and lifestyle factors are far more important.

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