Fats are essential nutrients for our body, and in a balanced diet, they must represent about 30% of daily calories.
But be careful: they are not all the same. It is necessary to favor the “good ones” found in fish, extra virgin olive oil, and dried fruit, even if a modest consumption of butter, cheeses, salami, and homemade desserts is allowed.
In recent years, both through the numerous information campaigns on public health and through advertising, the idea has spread that fatty foods are always bad for you. But in reality, fatty foods are not only bad, as well as some foods considered “good” are not totally good. Both must be part of our diet in the right quantities, favoring quality products, according to the food model of the Mediterranean diet, at the base of which is also the conviviality and therefore the pleasure of sharing food with family and friends, without anxiety.
Some research shows that people even tend to be judged based on their food consumption, regardless of the effects that these food choices have on the health of individuals. Those who eat good, healthy, and dietetic foods would be judged morally more healthy than those who eat “bad” foods, which traditionally are more harmful to health or make you fat.
Cholesterol under control
It is recommended not to consume more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day, which is roughly equivalent to one egg, 150 grams of salmon, and 100 grams of mozzarella.
SALMON, AVOCADO, AND DRIED FRUITS
These three foods contain omega-3 “good fats” important for regulating blood pressure and inflammatory responses.
THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF FATS
SATURATED: they tend to increase total blood cholesterol. They are mainly contained in foods of animal origin such as fatty meats and their derivatives (bacon, lard) and non-skimmed dairy products (cheeses, whole milk, cream, butter), and in certain tropical vegetable oils (palm, coconut).
UNSATURATED: they do not affect blood cholesterol levels and even tend to lower them. The main sources are non-tropical vegetable oils (olive, nuts, seeds), fish and fish oils. They include monounsaturated foods, mainly contained in extra virgin olive oil, and polyunsaturated ones, mainly contained in nuts and fish. Among the very important polyunsaturates are:
- long-chain omega-3, which are rich in oily fish (mackerel, anchovies, sardines, amberjack, garfish) and fish oils.
- short-chain omega-3 contained in some vegetable oils, seeds, nuts.
- omega-6, which are rich in corn, sunflower and soybean oils, wheat germ, and legumes.
TRANS: they raise blood cholesterol levels by promoting the increase of “bad” (LDL) cholesterol compared to “good” (HDL). They can be found in meat and milk, but the most dangerous are those deriving from low-cost industrial food processing processes. Trans fats can also be formed by cooking oils at very high temperatures (greater than 220°C) for a long time.
Fats are needed
In a balanced diet, according to the new guidelines, the percentage of calories derived from fats must be kept between 25 and 35%, of which no more than 10% must be made up of saturated fats (including cholesterol), which are those mostly of animal origin.
Fats are one of the three main macronutrients, along with carbohydrates and proteins. In addition to being an energy source, fat is also the main constituent of cell membranes and the myelin sheath that forms nerve fibers and allows us to absorb fat-soluble vitamins (which dissolve in fats) such as A, D, E, and K.
Which ones to choose
Fats are not all the same, and we must learn to choose those beneficial for our health, favoring foods containing monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, such as vegetable oils – in particular extra virgin olive oil -, fish and nuts.
Trans fats, which derive from some industrial food processing processes (hydrogenation, which produces hydrogenated fats), should be avoided altogether.
Among the polyunsaturated foods, foods rich in omega-3 and omega-6, essential fats that our body cannot synthesize on its own, should be privileged. Omega-3 and omega-6 also contribute to the synthesis of substances that regulate important processes, such as maintaining the right blood pressure and that modulate inflammatory responses. Bluefish (mackerel, anchovies, sardines) are very rich in omega-3 and should be eaten three times a week. The omega-3s are contained, together with the omega-6s, also in nuts such as walnuts and hazelnuts, in flax seeds, in some vegetable oils.
No to light foods
A research conducted in the context of a large Spanish study to evaluate the effect of the Mediterranean diet on the primary prevention of cardiovascular events monitored the cardiovascular health of over 7,000 people, divided into 3 groups. Daily, the first group consumed 4-6 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, the second 30 grams of dried fruit, and the third followed a low-fat diet. It turned out that those who ate more “good” fats (from oil and nuts) had fewer heart and circulation problems and did not gain weight, unlike those who followed the low-fat diet.
It follows that the consumption of light foods, proposed by marketing, is not convenient for our health. Those who are obsessed with the consumption of light foods not only risk overeating industrially processed foods but can also encounter nutritional imbalances due to the fact that, for example, defatting a food can decrease its total fat content but favor an imbalance in the proportion between the various types of lipids (it could enrich it in cholesterol). There is also the risk of running into nutritional deficiencies, for example of fat-soluble vitamins: this is the case of skimmed milk or light spreadable cheeses. A veil of butter or a teaspoon of Gorgonzola or a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil on a slice of wholemeal bread is much more complete from a nutritional point of view than an abundant amount of light spreadable cheese.
An excessive consumption of light foods also leads to incorrect behavior. Products sold as “dietetic” (bars, yogurt, or cereals) encourage you to exercise less under the illusion of eating a low-calorie diet. This is confirmed by a recent research published in the Journal of Marketing Research. The mental association between fat and harmful is rooted in many people and leads them to overestimate the presence of lipids in some foods labeled as fat by up to 35% and to underestimate it in those perceived as healthy. Marketing very often takes advantage of these psychological mechanisms by offering consumers evident “distortions”, driven by the fame enjoyed by some products considered healthy (the so-called “halo effect”).
Extra Virgin Oil
It is the only nutrient of the Mediterranean diet that scientific research has shown to effectively prevent heart attack and stroke.
Corn, sunflower, and soy oils are rich in omega-6 fatty acids, which are part of the “good fats”. Not so tropical vegetable oils, such as palm and coconut oils, rich in saturated fats, which tend to raise blood cholesterol.
THREE FALSE BELIEFS ABOUT FAT
1. Margarine is lean
No, even though it was born as a “light” substitute for butter, it is rich in saturated fatty acids that favor the increase of “bad cholesterol” (LDL) in the blood. Until a few years ago, margarine was produced by the hydrogenation of unsaturated oils and was also rich in harmful trans fats.
2. Baking is healthier
No, it requires a similar amount of oil to the pan, if not more. In addition, the oxidation of fats in the oven, which produces harmful compounds, is favored by the high surface/volume ratio, the convective motions of hot air, and prolonged cooking times.
3. Those with high cholesterol should not eat eggs
No, in these cases, it is sufficient not to over-consume them, limiting themselves to taking a maximum of 2-3 per week. It is also good to cut down on other sources of saturated fat such as meats and cheeses.
Always remember that the secret to a healthier life is a balanced diet and an active lifestyle.
Be active and eat a little bit of everything!