•Despite the negative reputation of fats, they are a necessary part of our diet.
•The key is to avoid trans fats, which are found in processed foods and associated with serious health risks.
•Aside from checking the label, keeping an active lifestyle and exploring alternative ways of food preparation are also good health practices.
Fats have a bad rap. Most of the things about the body that are visually displeasing are blamed on fat. Love handles? Fat. That pouch you can’t seem to ever get rid of? Fat. The bulges that show when you wear clothes that are a bit too tight? Fat. But the truth is a bit more complicated than that.
“For the body to function, it needs nutrients. Fats are considered as macronutrients, which we have to obtain from our diet in relatively large proportions,” explains Jomay Tongol, Nutrition Officer 3 at the Nutrition Information and Education Division of the National Nutrition Council (NNC).
“So, for you to be able to function, you need carbohydrates, you need proteins, and you need fats,” Tongol continues. According to her, it’s just a matter of choosing your fats.
As a matter of fat…
Broadly speaking, there are two types of fat. Saturated fats occur naturally in beef, pork, and poultry, and in dairy products such as butter. These are the ones you want to avoid. Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, are generally good for the body. Nuts, seeds, fish, and many commercially available oils – canola, olive, coconut – are all rich sources of unsaturated fats.
And then there are trans fats. Though technically categorized as unsaturated, trans fats, when artificially produced in reactors, are anything but healthy. They’re known to increase cholesterol levels, clog up arteries, and lead to serious cardiovascular diseases, such as stroke and heart attack.
On the other hand, trans fats have incredible industrial value. Because they are very stable, chemically, food with trans fats do not spoil easily. More importantly, they make food taste great: Donuts are creamy and pastries are flaky because of trans fats.
Unfortunately, this means that trans fats are in very wide use. Keeping them out of your diet can be tricky.
Big, fat lies?
“Our call to action for consumers is that every time they go to the supermarket to buy processed foods, whether or not they have conditions or disease, or if it’s for them or for their family members, they really have to read and understand the nutrition facts,” Tongol emphasizes.
But sometimes, even nutrition labels can be misleading. Because our food laws lack explicit ceilings, industrial use of trans fats are effectively unrestricted. Some companies don’t bother declaring trace amounts of trans fats while others play with their recommended serving sizes to arrive at negligible levels.
In many cases, a single pack will contain more than one serving – tiny amounts of trans fats building up to huge consequences.
In these instances, it may be useful to refer to the ingredients list. Food with partially hydrogenated oils are sure to contain trans fats, no matter how minimal. Margarine and shortening are other red flags that betray a zero-gram trans fats declaration. There’s really no way to be completely sure, however. Until sweeping regulations are put in place to eliminate the use of trans fats in our food, doing the groceries will keep being a gamble.
While trying to limit the amount trans fats in the food we eat is an effective strategy to stay healthy, it is by no means the only way, Tongol points out. Keeping a balanced diet and leading an active lifestyle remain unrivaled.
Instead of frying, for example, people may want to consider other modes of preparing their food: steaming, boiling, grilling, or broiling. This not only helps them limit the amount of bad fats in their diets, it may also open up new avenues of flavor. If frying can’t be avoided, then reducing the amount of oil is a good compromise.
Being mindful of intake also shouldn’t stop with fats. “What about sugar? What about the foods high in sodium? Both of those are also risk factors for non-communicable diseases (NCDs),” according to Tongol. “The approach really has to be holistic.”
To this end, the NNC has revealed its Ten Kumainments, which lists crucial nutritional guidelines for Filipinos in language that is accessible to everyone. Alongside this is the promotion of the Pinggang Pinoy by the Philippine Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI), which provides a visual breakdown of how each meal should look like. (Spoiler alert: There are plenty of vegetables on it.)
“Trans fats are only one of the risk factors for NCDs,” emphasizes Tongol. “And you lessen that by adopting a healthy lifestyle. And one component of a healthy lifestyle is a healthy diet. It always boils down to a healthy diet.”–MF
Editor’s note: This story was produced under the ‘(Un)Covering Trans Fats Media Training and Fellowship Program’ by Probe Media Foundation Inc. (PMFI) and ImagineLaw (IL). The views and opinions expressed in this piece are not necessarily those of PMFI and IL.
Cover photo: Pexels
Author: Tristan Mañalac
Tristan is a journalist based in Metro Manila, focusing mainly on health, science, and the environment. He writes daily clinical news for MIMS.com and does in-depth reporting on the side. Being formally trained in the life sciences, he once dreamed of starting his own lab. But these days, he finds his greatest joy in a bottle of beer and a beautiful sentence.