Good fat, bad fat

Avoid saturated and trans fats, and instead opt for natural, unsaturated fat sources

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Perhaps you’ve heard that eating lots of fat is a bad thing. Perhaps you’ve heard this a thousand times.

I hesitate to be the bearer of the thousand-and-first message, but my hope is to simplify the fat thing and make it all more understandable.

This is not an easy task, since the subject of dietary fat is burdened by confusing terms.

There’s saturated and unsaturated; hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated and not hydrogenated; monounsaturated and polyunsaturated; trans fat and cholesterol fat.

I prefer to just call them bad fat and good fat.

Where we find fats

Excess consumption of bad fat can lead to vascular diseases such as heart attack, stroke and plugging of vessels to the legs.

Consumption of good fat is OK, and maybe even helpful if consumed in moderation.

All you really need to know is that the good stuff is unsaturated fat (such as olive and canola oils). The bad stuff is saturated fat (such as lard and butter) and trans fat (hydrogenated fat).

Trans fat is actually a naturally occurring unsaturated fat that’s been artificially hydrogenated (saturated) to make it taste better and last longer on the shelves — a process that takes a good fat and turns it into a very bad fat.

Trans fat (commercially hydrogenated fat) is commonly found in oily products we buy at the store, and in the fried foods we eat at restaurants. Its use in food preparation is a major problem.

Most of the saturated fat in our diet comes from animal products — meat, milk, butter, cream, eggs and lard. Foods from our animal friends aren’t inherently bad — it’s the saturated fat in these foods that’s bad, and then only if we consume too much of them.

The problem is that people in developed countries consume far too much meat and whole dairy products.

What to do

  • Choose a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fiber.
  • Decrease your total fat intake, and make sure what you do consume comes mostly from sources of unsaturated fats such as fish, nuts, seeds and non-hydrogenated vegetable oils.
  • Look at the labels. Avoid foods with lots of saturated fat or trans fats.
  • Cut back on consumption of meat. Choose fish a couple of days a week and restrict meat consumption to a total of six ounces on the other days. Poultry (the white parts with the skin removed) is a better choice than red meat.
  • Be careful with dairy products. Use 1 percent or skim milk (yes, you can learn to enjoy it), select cheese and cottage cheese labeled as low fat, restrict egg yolks to two per week (the white part of the egg is fine), and consider cream and ice cream to be special rather than daily treats. Use soft-tub type margarine rather than butter. Most soft, tub-type margarine today is made without hydrogenated or trans fats and is instead made of unsaturated vegetable oils.
  • Fry with unsaturated fat such as olive or corn oil. Don’t fry with butter or hydrogenated fat. Better yet, grill, broil or bake rather than fry.
  • Commercially prepared doughnuts, cookies, crackers, cakes, pies, chips and other snack foods are most often full of bad fat. (Try an apple. They’re the big, round red things.)
  • If you can’t avoid fast-food restaurants, try to avoid fried products at fast-food restaurants. Many of these restaurants continue to use bad fats in their deep fryers. Patronize restaurants that have switched to no-fat or no-trans-fat frying, or choose a non-fried meal.
  • Be careful with salad dressings. Many of these products are loaded with bad fat. Liquid dressings are generally better than semi-solid dressings. Choose dressings labeled as low fat. At a restaurant, ask for half the usual amount of dressing and then select the vinegar and oil rather than the blue cheese. At home, make your own dressing with olive oil and balsamic vinegar — and lower the amount of oil to suit your taste.

Do it now!

A change in your eating habits now can help you avoid vascular disease — even if you’ve spent 70 years eating sausage for breakfast and a scoop of ice cream at bedtime.


Dr. Michael Spilane, now retired, spent more than four decades practicing and teaching geriatric medicine in St. Paul. Send comments or questions to drspilane@mngoodage.com.