Some of us eat out often. This is usually for lack of time and we don’t really think about the consequences because we are on the go and hungry.
Eating out means that we must make significant sacrifices in the quality of our food as well as generate a significant monthly expense. We are paying for convenience with our pocketbooks and our health.
If we choose to get prepared or frozen food to take home instead, we usually must make a similar sacrifice. Perhaps we keep a little more money in the bank, but the health toll remains significant.
One of the main concerns with prepared food is the use of too much fat or the use of poor quality fats and oils over which we sometimes have little knowledge and over which we can have little control if our food is prepared by others.
Two big names that it can be difficult to avoid when eating out are saturated fats and hydrogenated oils. We have all heard of studies showing saturated fats and hydrogenated oils to be bad for health but what does that really mean?
So What are Hydrogenated Oils and Saturated Fats?
First let’s go over the basics. Fats and oils are both part of a group of substances called lipids.
Both fats and oils are made up of chains of fatty acids, which are the building blocks of lipids much like simple sugars are the building blocks of more complex carbohydrates.
Where they differ is that fats tend to be solid at room temperature and oils liquid. A lipid that is solid at room temperature tends to contain more saturated fatty acids than one that is liquid.
When we say that a fatty acid is saturated, this means that chemically all of its possible bonding sites for other molecules have been bonded to by hydrogen atoms.
From this explanation we can see that hydrogenated oils can be thought of as man-made saturated fats where food chemists have forcefully bonded hydrogen atoms to unsaturated fatty acids to make them become solid at room temperature.
Unique Health Risks Posed by Hydrogenation.
The difference between hydrogenated oils and saturated fats is that through the hydrogenation process, the fatty acid chains are deformed from the force used to bond the hydrogen atoms. This causes them to have difficulty bonding to the enzymes we use to break down fats and so they have a tendency to get stuck in our bodies and have unique effects on our health like raising LDL (dangerous) cholesterol and at the same time lowering HDL (good) cholesterol.
These unique, man-made health risks are an excellent reason to avoid foods containing hydrogenated oils whenever possible.
The Harvard Schools of Public Health announced in 1993 that margarine, a product made from hydrogenated oils, can increase the risk for heart disease by as much as 70 percent in women. An article in the American Journal of Public Health in 1994, written by Harvard nutritionist Walter Willett, reported that margarine and other processed foods could be the cause of 30,000 of the country´s approximately 750,000 yearly deaths from cardiovascular disease.
The following is an excerpt from an interview with Walter Willett regarding his findings on hydrogenated oils:
Is trans fat really so much worse for us than other fats?
Yes. It both raises “bad” LDL cholesterol and lowers “good” HDL cholesterol. It has other unique — for dietary fat — adverse effects on the inner lining of blood vessels and on how our cells respond to insulin. And our studies have shown that it’s also linked to diabetes.
What is it about trans fat that makes it cause all those problems?
Without processing, fat molecules have a nice curved shape that allows them to be metabolized properly. Trans fat is an entirely artificial, processed food. It’s made out of vegetable oils that have been heated and blasted with hydrogen. That process twists the shape of the molecule, so it doesn’t “fit” correctly with enzymes. Eating trans fat is like throwing sand into your finely regulated metabolic machinery.
Another problem with trans fat is that some of the fat molecules you’re hydrogenating are the omega-3 fatty acids. In fact, one of the main reasons for using trans fat is to get rid of the omega-3 fatty acids because they go rancid. But the omega-3s are protective against heart disease and possibly some other diseases.
So What to do About This?
We need to find ways to avoid or at least minimize our exposure to hydrogenated oils and reduce our intake of saturated fats to more healthful levels. Shifting our diets toward more healthful meals and finding practical ways to do so is the most surefire way to both improve our diets and reduce our exposure to these and other detrimental substances in prepared foods. When we must go out, learning to make good choices and being a savvy consumer are our top defenses.
New York City in 2006 became the first US city to pass legislature to ban the use of hydrogenated cooking oils in food preparation. This has been hailed as a landmark piece of legislature and is indeed a good thing as it denotes an increased public awareness in dietary health. This ban does not, however, include foods and ingredients that are brought into New York City’s restaurants already containing hydrogenated oils and so New York City has hardly become Trans-Fat free after July of 2008 when the ban took effect.
If even with new laws that undeniably target hydrogenated oils as a significant health risk we are unable to be sure that we can keep these substances out of the food we buy, how much of it is in the foods in places where there is no ban?
So Should we Avoid all Fats?
Fats, (not hydrogenated ones) but even saturated ones, in small quantities and in the right balance to the other foods in our diet can actually be beneficial to the body. They aid in digestion, are a good source of energy and are used in a variety of the body’s essential functions.
The problems come when we shift the amount of fat in our diet away from the balance naturally available in traditional cultures that ate whole foods and we use modern food production techniques to push our consumption into excess.
Much of the fat in the Standard American Diet tends to come from saturated fat or hydrogenated oils. There have been many studies, as we all know, that link the overconsumption of saturated fats and hydrogenated oils with heart disease and certain types of cancers.
The traditional diets that the Macro-Mediterranean way of eating bases its meal guidelines upon contained most of their fewer calories derived from fat from unsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats have been shown to take less of a toll on the body, especially in the small quantities involved, and so when combined with a traditional way of eating as a whole, allow for the beneficial qualities of dietary fat to shine through.
Balance is the Key.
The frustration now for those coming to the realization that adopting a diet based on traditional amounts of dietary fat would be more healthful is that this detrimental way of eating has become so pervasive in our society that it requires serious effort to get away from. But we must get away from it as our health and quality of life are at stake.
This is why at Macro-Mediterranean Holistic Nutrition we are working so hard to develop tools for our clients that are innovative enough to allow for traditional eating with a modern lifestyle, and why we hope that as many of you as possible will find the way that is right for you to implement this traditional wisdom in your life.*