Diet & Exercise: Chewing the fat

Published 8:00 am Friday, August 3, 2018

This is the first in a two-part series on fats.

For years, we’ve been taught that fats were bad. We were urged to remove them entirely from our diets, whenever possible.

So, many folks made the switch to low-fat foods, believing that all weight and health problems would be solved by eliminating fat from their diets.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. 

You see, the body needs some fat from foods. Fats are required to build cell membranes, help us absorb fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) and other nutrients, provide us energy, and even reduce and relieve inflammation.

So it’s easy to get confused about “good” and “bad” fats, isn’t it?

First, let’s explore bad fats.

The first, saturated fat, is primarily animal-based, and is found in foods such as lamb, pork, fatty beef, poultry with skin, lard, cream, butter and cheese. Some plant-based oils, like palm kernel oil and coconut oil, contain saturated fat, but don’t contain cholesterol.

Saturated fats are simply fat molecules “saturated” with hydrogen molecules, so they have no double bonds between their carbon molecules. This makes saturated fat solid at both room and refrigerated temperatures.

Why are these fats bad for us? Simply put, saturated fats raise the level of cholesterol in the blood.

High levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol increase your risk for heart disease and stroke, and possibly type 2 diabetes, especially when combined with a diet high in refined carbohydrates (sugars).

The next “bad” fat is even worse — trans fat.

Unlike saturated fat, trans fats do have chemical bonds of hydrogen atoms on opposite ends, and that can be a problem. In fact, “trans” is Latin for “on the opposite side,” hence trans fat.

These chemical bonds are believed to be responsible for many health issues.

Some trans fats occur naturally, found in small amounts in ruminant animals such as cattle, sheep and goats. Dairy and meat eaters shouldn’t worry about these trans fats because they make up only 2 to 5 percent of fat found in dairy, and 3 to 9 percent of fat in beef and lamb. Studies show that moderate intake of ruminant trans fat does not appear to be harmful.

Man-made trans fats, though, are entirely different. Artificial trans fats were created in an industrial process, where hydrogen was injected into otherwise healthy liquid vegetable oils. The result is a fat that is actually one chemical reaction away from being “plastic.”

The entire process was designed to make oils more solid, with a longer shelf life, and to provide foods with better flavor and texture. These fats are used in processed foods like french fries, fried chicken and other fried foods, shortening, margarine, biscuits, breakfast sandwiches, potato chips, microwave popcorn, cakes, cake frosting, cookies, crackers, coffee creamer, pie and pie crust, pancakes and waffles, ice cream, frozen or creamy beverages, frozen dinners, and donuts.

What’s so bad about man-made trans fats?

First, I’d like you to think of the protein, carbohydrates and fats that you eat as little puzzle pieces in your body. Each has a specific molecular shape that has to “fit” in order to be used by the body. When you eat these “plastic” fats, these puzzle pieces just don’t fit because of where their hydrogen molecules are placed.

Trans fats have been shown to raise LDL (bad) cholesterol by 15 percent and triglycerides (fat in the blood) by 47 percent. They lower HDL (good) cholesterol, a substance that gets rid of excess fat in the blood.

Also, trans fats have been shown to increase at least two inflammatory markers. Inflammation causes many chronic diseases from diabetes to heart disease and metabolic syndrome.

In June 2015, the Food and Drug Administration finalized its decision to remove hydrogenated oils from its “generally recognized as safe” list of ingredients. Companies were given until June 18, 2018, to eliminate hydrogenated oils (trans fats) from their products.

However, many companies argued they were unable to reformulate their products in time. Some products, like flavor enhancers and cooking spray oils, were given an extra year to comply.

While new products cannot be manufactured using hydrogenated oils (trans fats), items with these ingredients already on store shelves may be sold.

Here’s the problem with labeling on items that contain trans fats. Under rules provided by the FDA, foods that contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving, must be labeled as “0g” trans fats.

Because less than 2 grams of trans fats per day is recommended, 0.5 grams per serving is quite significant.

The rule to remember is this — if you read the words “hydrogenated oil” on an ingredient list, that product contains trans fats.

Next week, we’ll explore benefits derived from “good” fats.

David Crocker, of Landrum, has been a master personal trainer and nutritionist for 30 years. Diet or exercise question? Email him at or text him at 864-494-6215.