How Well Do You Know Your Fats?

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Published: March 30, 2017


Fat! It’s the stuff that most of us work tirelessly to reduce intakes of. The stuff that floats on top of our piping hot pots of pepper soup or sputters across the stove when we drop a piece of plantain to fry. The stuff that contributes deadly clogged arteries and the muffin top that hangs over our favorite jeans. We drain it, blot it, hide it and try to avoid it, but when it comes to health, not all fat is created equal.

Turns out, while there are some fats you should be eating less of, there are others you should be sure to make a part of your diet.

Let’s Break It Down

Saturated Fats
Solid at room temperature and commonly found in tropical oils such as coconut oil and palm oil as well as fatty meats and  animal products like cream, butter, cheese, full fat dairy products and lard, saturated fats  are believed to increase bad (LDL) cholesterol and  your risk for heart disease and stroke.

Recent studies however, suggest that saturated fats may not be as harmful to heart health as previously believed. In fact some researchers suggest that coconut oil may contain compounds that actually improve good (HDL) cholesterol levels while palm oil’s  powerful phytochemicals  may actually fight disease and reduce risk of heart disease. Furthermore,  palm oil is naturally rich in vitamin A, a nutrient that is often added to processed foods because many Africans do not get enough of it.

It is important to note that palm kernel oil, the oil derived from the seed (nut) is much higher in saturated fat than palm oil, the oil obtained from palm fruit. For this reason, avoid using palm kernel oil.

Tip: Use saturated fats such as palm oil and coconut oil in moderation. Remember,  Red-Red and other palm oil stews don’t have to have a layer of red oil  for them to be delicious. Taste the flavour of all your ingredients by using less oil when cooking. A little certainly goes a long way.

RELATED: To Use or Not to Use Palm Oil 

Monounsaturated  Fatty Acids (MUFA’s)

Made popular by the Mediterranean diet, MUFA’s may improve health by enhancing the blood vessels, helping control blood sugars and decreasing bad (LDL) cholesterol while increasing good (HDL) cholesterol.

While they are often found in oils that liquid at room temperature but become a solid when put in a cold area or refrigerator (olive oil, peanut oil, rapeseed oil (canola) etc.) they are also found in some of our favourite healthy high fat plant foods like avocado, olives and nuts.

Tip: Boost your heart health by replacing some of the saturated fats in your diet with MUFA’s. For example, use a slice of avocado instead of butter on your toast.  

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Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFA’s)

This class of fat gets praise because of its cholesterol lowering benefits and contains two very important compounds, Omega-3 fatty acids and Omega-6 fatty acids. Also known as essential fatty acids because the body can not make them, Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids improve healthy by improving cholesterol levels.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Linked to the prevention and treatment of many diseases including arthritis, cancer, diabetes and heart disease, Omega-3 fatty acids are also believed to help depression and boost mental health. They’re  extremely important during pregnancy and early childhood because they play an active role in brain development.

Sources of Omega-3 fatty acids include most oily fish like mackerel, tuna and salmon  but you can also obtain them from vegetable sources like seeds and nuts (ground flaxseed, walnuts, sunflower seeds) and oils like canola and soya.

Omega-6 fatty acids

Also  essential, Omega-6 fatty acids promote hair growth while enhancing fertility and boosting your metabolic health.

The most common sources of Omega-6 fatty acids are egg yolk, meats and dairy. As a result, most people easily consume adqequate amounts of these acids.

It is important to note that eating too many Omega-6 fatty acids and not enough Omega-3 fatty acids may cause a harmful imbalance that contributes to heart disease, cancer and depression.

Tip: Balance the Omega fatty acids in your diet by eating more fatty fish, nuts and seeds while reducing your intake of  intake of meat and animal products.

Trans Fatty Acids

Trans fats are oils that have been processed become solid so that they can stay solid at room temperature, extending the shelf lives of the foods to which they are added.

They are often found in processed baked goods like biscuits, packaged cakes and snacks. They are also common in shortening products used in baking and frying.

On food labels, trans fats may be as hydrogenated fat or partially hydrogenated fats.  They are considered harmful because they increase cholesterol levels.  In fact, they are so harmful that the United States government banned food manufacturers from using them.

Cholesterol

Many of us know cholesterol as the substance that clogs our arteries causing heart attacks and  strokes.  We often think of reducing it by watching the food we eat, but did you know that your body actually makes cholesterol? Turns out cholesterol is needed in the formation of cells and hormones as well as in the absorption of some nutrients during the digestion of food.

Too much cholesterol in the body is harmful and since it is commonly found in meat and animal products, you should make an effort to decrease intakes in your diet.

There are two types of cholesterol:

  1. High density lipoproteins (HDL). Known as the good cholesterol because it carries the bad cholesterol away from the heart and brain, helping protect the body from heart disease and stroke.

Tip: Increase your HDL levels by reducing alcohol and tobacco intakes while increasing your physical activity.

  1. Low density Lipoproteins (LDL). Often referred to as because the bad cholesterol, LDL’s carry most of the cholesterol in the blood and can block the arteries leading to a heart attack or a stroke.

Tip: Reduce LDL  by reducing saturated and trans fatty acids.

Triglycerides

Your body converts excess calories to triglycerides and stores them as fat in the cells.  High levels of triglycerides increase the chances of a person developing heart disease, stroke and pancreatitis.

While excess caloric intakes are a major contributor, high triglycerides may also be related to poorly controlled diabetes, increase alcohol intakes, gout, fasting and lack of exercise.

You can reduce your intake of triglycerides by limiting sugar intakes from sweets, fruit juices, sugar, honey and soft drinks,   reducing alcohol intakes and exercising daily.

Bottom line

You need fat in your diet. In addition to preventing some disease, they aid in digestion, protect your organs, aid hormones and cell growth while providing your body with warmth. But the type of fat you eat makes a difference. Choose healthier foods and improve your overall fat intakes by:

  • Enjoying more fresh fruits and vegetables in your diet. Set a goal to eat more veggies than fruit.
  • Choose more whole grains. Milllet, sorghum, fonio and teff are a few African whole grains you should be eating more of.
  • Choose skinless poultry and limit red meat to no more than once a week.
  • Aim to include a minimum of 2 servings of fish each day
  • Beans, peas, nuts and seed are healthy nutrient sources that have the added bonus of fiber, nature’s broom that sweeps the junk out. Enjoy them more often.

Here’s to your health.

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About Cordialis Msora-Kasago

Cordialis Msora-Kasago is a Registered Dietitian (R.D) and a pioneer in the discussion of modern day healthy lifestyles in Africa. She is the founder of The African Pot Nutrition - an organization that improves the health of African people through sustainable diet and lifestyle programs. Follow her on twitter @africadietitian.

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