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Lipids: the good, the bad and the ugly

We could call them the good, the bad and the ugly! No, we are not talking of spaghetti westerns and the famous 1966 film directed by Sergio Leone. Instead, we are talking about  a type of fat called lipids. Often we speak badly about them, but some are essential to our health as they reduce chronic inflammation, help lower “bad” cholesterol  – LDL – and are a valuable aid in the prevention of cardiovascular disease. Others, however, are harmful and should be avoided.

Good lipids activate genes that burn calories, increase metabolism and improve insulin activity. Bad ones have the opposite effect.

The group of good lipids are part of the omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids: they are powerful anti-inflammatory agents and are found in salmon, mackerel, sardines, flax and walnuts. Monounsaturated fats lower cholesterol and sugar levels in the blood, and are found in olive oil, almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, avocado and in sesame seeds.

Some saturated fats also belong to the good fats. In abundance they are not good for us, especially fats from cheese and meat, but a small amount, for example from coconut milk, can be useful to the body thanks to the lauric acid that is important for our central nervous system. Finally, some of the omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids can produce anti-inflammatory substances. You should try to eat only small doses from unrefined sources, that is to say from  not overly industrially processed food, such as scold-pressed sesame, sunflower and walnut oil.

The second group of “bad” fats include all the other omega-6 fatty acids: they are polyunsaturated refined and cold-pressed fats in vegetable oils. Arachidonic acid, found in milk, its derivatives and in red meat also form part of this group. Other saturated fatty acids are also harmful, these are often found in beef, chicken, cheese, milk and dairy products. Contrary to what you might think, eggs contain very little fat.

Even some synthetic fats have a negative effect on the metabolism because they are industrially produced through hydrogenation, a process in which hydrogen is added to a vegetable oil to turn it into a solid product. This includes margarine for example, but these fats are used in bakery products  as well such as in crackers, cookies, snacks and in fried and processed food. Excessive consumption of these “bad” fats reduces the health of the heart and blood vessels and can increase the risk of cancer.

Filippo Ongaro

Challenge | Fats and cardiovascular risk


How lipid fat can be good: omega-3 as a source of energy.

Imagine you ate nothing but fast food for a whole month, three times a day (breakfast, lunch and dinner), you could even stop all exercise. Do you think it is impossible? It can be done but it certainly is bad for your health. In the 2004 documentary “Super Size Me” Morgan Spurlock, did exactly that to show the physical and psychological effects of such a diet. At the end of the experiment, the director put on 11 kg (his starting weight being  84 kg) increasing his body mass by 13%.

This is an extreme scenario, but disturbing nonetheless, especially when you consider that many people regularly eat so-called junk food. However, it would be equally wrong to completely give up fat. In fact, “good” fats form an important supply of energy for the body and play different roles in our body; for example polyunsaturated fatty acids omega-3 are essential for the proper functioning of our nervous system.

The good fats are beneficial both on Earth and in space. Without adequate precautions, spaceflight can have many negative effects on human physiology, such as loss of muscle and bone mass. However, a diet rich in food that contains omega-3 (such as oily fish), can slow this mechanism and help maintain bone mineral density.

Beyond the preservation of muscles, bones and immune function, omega-3 may play a role in cancer prevention and in countering the effects of radiation during long-duration missions. The first studies on animals seem to show a positive outcome in this regard. Furthermore, depression and personality disorders have been associated with the lack of such fats. In fact, these fatty acids could affect not only the cognitive functions, but also mood and emotional state.

Dr. Filippo Ongaro

Challenge | Fats and cardiovascular risk