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Dietary Fats – Understanding Some Basic Concepts

When it comes to living a healthy life, dietary fat is important for maintaining good overall health. This is even more important as you get older. So it is essential to understand that your body needs a regular intake of fat.

Eating adequate amounts of dietary fat is important as they provide calories your body uses for energy, support cell growth, and protect and keep your organs warm.

Your body also needs fat to be able to effectively absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K as well as to produce important hormones. Eating the right type and in the right amount also helps keep blood pressure under control.

However, it’s also important to realize that what you eat can affect your LDL (bad) cholesterol. It’s critical to understand which type of fats can raise your LDL cholesterol and which ones don’t. This knowledge can significantly help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Certain fats are also good sources of two essential fatty acids – linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid.

So it’s important to understand that trying to cut out all fat can deprive your body of one of its most essential nutrients.

Different types of fats

Fat is a complex topic that inspires much debate among scientists and nutritionists. The fact is that there is not just one “fat”, but rather there are different types of fats.

It is worth understanding the role that fats play in a healthy diet. So it’s good to take a closer look at the four different types of fat: saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and trans fats.

You can find dietary fats in both animal and plant foods. The fact is that all dietary fats are made up of a mixture of polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and saturated fatty acids, in varying proportions. Also, oils are generally unsaturated fatty acids, although they have small amounts of saturated fatty acids.

The four types have difficult chemical structures and physical properties. The reality is that some of these fats are good, some good or bad – depending on certain factors, while some are downright bad.

Bad fats – saturated and trans fats – are generally solid at room temperature. On the other hand, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats tend to be more liquid.

Regardless of their type, each gram of fat has nine (9) calories. Fats are inherently more calorie dense than carbohydrates and proteins which each have four (4) calories per gram.

Saturated fat

Saturated fat is generally considered the “bad” fat. Their chemical composition is such that they have no double bonds between carbon molecules because they are saturated with hydrogen molecules.

They occur naturally in many foods and mainly come from meat and dairy products. These meat sources include beef, lamb, pork and poultry (with the skin). Dairy sources of saturated fat include high-fat dairy foods such as butter, margarine, cream and cheese.

Plant sources of saturated fat include coconut, coconut oil and cocoa butter. Others are palm oil and palm kernel oil which are generally called tropical oils. However, tropical oils generally do not contain cholesterol.

In addition, sources of saturated fat include many fast, processed and baked foods such as pizza, desserts, hamburgers, cookies and pastries.

Monounsaturated Fats

Chemically, monounsaturated fats are simple fat molecules that have an unsaturated carbon bond in the molecule. They are generally liquid at room temperature, but begin to solidify when cooled. A typical example of monounsaturated fats is olive oil.

Oils that are rich in monounsaturated fats also contain vitamin E – an antioxidant. Foods that have high amounts of monounsaturated fats are liquid vegetable oils such as canola oil, olive oil, peanut oil, safflower oil, and sesame oil.

Other good sources of monounsaturated fat include avocados and nuts such as almonds, cashews, hazelnuts and pecans. Monounsaturated fats are also found in seeds such as pumpkin, sesame and sunflower.

Polyunsaturated Fats

Polyunsaturated fats have more than one (“many”, for many) unsaturated carbon bonds. Like monounsaturated fats, they are also liquid at room temperature and become solid when cooled.

They are found in higher amounts in sunflower, corn, soybean and cottonseed oils. Other good sources include flax seeds, pine nuts, pumpkin, sesame, sunflower and walnuts.

However, animal fats contain only small amounts of polyunsaturated fats. Seafood such as herring, mackerel, salmon, trout and tuna contain high amounts of a type of polyunsaturated fat called omega-3 fatty acids.

Trans-fatty acids

Trans fatty acids are mainly found in oils created through an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. Trans fats are structurally different from unsaturated fatty acids and differ in their health effects.

Trans fats are mainly found in processed foods such as fried foods, pastries, pizza dough, pie crust and other baked goods. Others are processed foods such as cookies, muffins, crackers, and even some brands of microwave popcorn.

Types of Dietary Fats to Eat?

The main health concern regarding the consumption of dietary fats is the effect they have on blood cholesterol levels. There are also serious concerns about the increased risk of inflammation that eating saturated and trans fats can cause in the body.

Saturated and trans fats in food cause a much greater increase in LDL cholesterol. However, eating healthy fats from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats can help balance cholesterol by lowering LDL and increasing good (HDL) cholesterol.

Eating foods that contain fat is definitely part of a healthy diet. The idea should be to choose foods that provide healthy fats while aiming to maintain a caloric balance between the amount of calories you eat from food and the amount of calories you burn.

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