It can be hard to believe, but it is true: our bodies need fats to function.
This functioning goes beyond just keeping us warm in the winter. Fats also help with cell growth, organ function, nutrient absorption, and hormone production and regulation. They are an important source of energy that allows us to do all of the things we need to get done in our busy lives.
Not all fats are beneficial, though. While some fats help promote health and well-being, others are linked with an increased risk of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.
There are four types of fats:
- Saturated fats
- Trans fats
- Monounsaturated fats
- Polyunsaturated fats
Each of these has a vastly different chemical structure as well as different physical properties. Saturated and trans fats are generally solid at room temperature (like butter and shortening), while mono- and polyunsaturated fats remain liquid (like olive and vegetable oils). This is due in part to the manner in which they are processed and also contributes to their texture and use in foods.
The first two, saturated and trans fats, are considered “bad” fats and should be avoided. Saturated and trans fats are found in commercially prepared foods like cookies, cakes, crackers, pie crusts, and even some potato chips. Saturated fats are also frequently used for frying. Trans fats increase the shelf life of food, allowing food manufacturers to create, store, and ship food more efficiently and cost-effectively.
Saturated fats are found mainly in animal products such as meat, milk, cream, and other dairy products, while trans fats are produced by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil. Trans fats are frequently listed on ingredient labels as “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.”
Saturated and trans fats contribute to significant health issues, including:
- Obesity: Excessive amounts of these types of fats generally end up surrounding the organs of the abdomen. This results in an “apple” shaped body that increases a person’s risk of heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, and early death.
- Cardiovascular illness: Trans and saturated fats increase fatty deposits in arteries, increasing the chances of heart attack and other heart conditions.
- Affect cholesterol: Saturated and trans fats raise the level of “bad” cholesterol (LDL, or low-density lipoprotein) while lowering the level of “good” cholesterol (HDL, or high-density lipoprotein).
The health dangers of trans fats are so pronounced (and largely preventable) that in 2007, New York City became the first major city in the U.S. to ban restaurants from using trans fats in its food. In 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration removed the designation of “generally referred as safe” for human consumption from trans fats. Following that, in a move that has long been speculated about, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ordered all food manufacturers in the U.S. to stop using trans fats by 2018.
But not all fats are bad.
Mono- and polyunsaturated fats are beneficial to the body. Pain patients in particular may find that a diet rich in polyunsaturated fats, also known as omega 3 fatty acids, can help them with health conditions that cause pain such as:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Inflammatory bowel disease
Polyunsaturated fats have been proven to reduce inflammation in the body and thus play a large role in pain conditions that cause or are caused by inflammation.
Omega 3 fatty acids are essential fatty acids. The body needs them to survive and function but is unable to produce them. This means that these healthy fats must be consumed in food.
Fortunately, it is easy and delicious to get omega 3 fatty acids from a wide variety of foods.
Stick to the sea
The best source of polyunsaturated fats is the sea. Cold-water fish including salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines are rich in omega 3 fatty acids. Halibut, lake trout, and herring are also good options. The recommended amount is two servings of fish twice a week.
Women who are pregnant need to make sure they are getting plenty of omega 3 fatty acids but should avoid eating fish that is high in mercury (e.g., tuna).
Nuts and nut oils, especially walnuts, are high in omega 3 fatty acids and offer a vegetarian option for those who would like to eat a plant-based diet.
Stick to the Mediterranean
The Mediterranean diet, with its emphasis on lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and limited processed foods, offers a bounty of healthy polyunsaturated fats. This type of eating also encourages the use of olive oil, another source of healthy fats, and allows for a couple glasses of red wine a day (with your doctor’s agreement, of course!).
Until all restaurants can no longer use trans fats, it is best for pain patients to dine in more often than they dine out. Trans and saturated fats are cheap and easy to use, which is why they are still in heavy rotation in most restaurants.
If you do choose to eat out, ask your server about the types of fats used in the restaurant. If it is a chain that outsources most of its food, you can bet that trans and saturated fats are on the menu.
Fats may be an essential part of your diet, but they still need to remain at less than 30% of total calories consumed (and less than 10% of these fat calories should be from saturated fats). When this dietary recommendation came out, there was little evidence to back it up. However, over the years, study after study has proven that while fats are a necessary part of your diet, they should still be consumed mindfully and with an eye to choosing the healthiest kind.
What is your main source of fats? Do you need to make changes?