When you hear the word “fats,” what comes to mind? For most, it’s “bad,” “fattening,” “unhealthy” or even “disgusting.” There are many misconceptions about fats, including the idea that eating fat makes us fat. In fact, eating fats is an important part of being healthy. The key is to be aware of what types of fats there are, which are most beneficial, and how they function within our bodies. Here are some surprising facts everyone should know…
Fats are considered nutrients.
Are you aware that dietary fats are actually considered nutrients? That’s right. Like carbohydrates and proteins, fats are considered macronutrients, because they are needed by the body to provide energy and carry out many normal biological functions.
Fats are essential for life.
Fats play vital roles in muscle contraction, blood clotting and inflammation. They are also structural components of cell membranes and the sheaths that encase our nerves. And, they carry vitamins A, D, E and K into the bloodstream to nourish our bodies.
In addition to serving as an energy reserve, we need fat in our bodies to cushion our organs and protect them from injury. The layer of fat under our skin also provides us with insulation, to keep us warm when the temperature is cold.
We need some fat in our diet to help us look good.
When fat is severely restricted, the body can’t produce enough oil in the skin and hair, which in turn become dry and dull. We need adequate amounts of polyunsaturated fats to keep our skin supple and our hair shiny.
Eating fats helps us think, feel and perform better.
Fats round out a healthy meal, helping us to feel satisfied. Because they take longer to digest than carbohydrates, blood sugar levels rise more slowly and are held steadier until the next meal. This means we’ll think more clearly and have more energy until the next meal–and won’t get as hungry.
Eating fat doesn’t make you fat.
Eating fat does not make you fat, unless you eat more calories each day than you burn. As a matter of fact, eating a moderate amount of fat can keep you from gaining weight, because it helps hold you over until the next meal. The latest Dietary Reference Intake for fat recommends an intake of between 20%-35% of our daily calories.
Low-fat foods can make you gain weight.
When people overly restrict fats and eat too many low-fat foods, they often end up gaining weight. Without enough fat to provide satiety, they are chronically hungry, and eat more food overall. Also, processed low-fat foods often have the same amount or more calories than their regular counterparts, due to a higher sugar content. Don’t assume that low fat means low calorie.
Some fats are beneficial, while others increase health risks.
In recent years, research has helped us to better understand the different types of fats, and their roles in both disease risk and prevention. Without a doubt, some types of fats are more healthful than others. Know the difference!
Saturated and trans fats should be limited.
These are the fats that tend to raise total cholesterol, especially the LDL type, which promotes blockage of coronary arteries. They also increase the risk of heart disease by boosting triglyceride levels. In general, these fats are solid at room temperature, but not always.
In a saturated fat, the chain of carbon atoms is literally saturated with hydrogen atoms, unable to hold more. It is found in butter, whole milk, other dairy products and meats, especially beef–all of which increase LDL levels. One exception is the saturated fat called stearic acid which is found in pure chocolate, which some research suggests lowers LDL levels.
Vegetable oils such as palm oil and coconut oil also contain saturated fat and have been shown to raise LDL cholesterol. But some studies have found that coconut oil also increases the so called “good” HDL cholesterol, although it has not been proven to be heart healthy at this point.
Trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils)
Although a small amount occurs naturally in foods, the vast majority of these fats are formed when a chemical process called hydrogenation solidifies vegetable oils by giving carbon atoms more hydrogen to hold. That’s exactly how margarines and shortening are made. The firmer the product, the more hydrogenated it is, so stick margarines have more trans fats than the tub varieties.
In addition to shortening and many margarines, the main dietary sources of these fats are packaged and processed baked products such as crackers, breads, cookies and cakes. They are also found in fast foods, some dairy products, and “partially hydrogenated” oils.
Research indicates that trans fats are even more unhealthful than saturated fats. In addition to raising LDL cholesterol, they also decrease the levels of beneficial HDL cholesterol, the type that helps protect against heart disease.
Eat more unsaturated fats.
Current research indicates that these are the fats that are good for the heart. They are derived mainly from vegetable and fish products, and are liquid at room temperature. They have fewer hydrogen atoms bonded to their carbon atoms.
These are called essential fats, because they are vital to bodily functions, but our bodies can’t manufacture them. They tend to lower LDL cholesterol more than HDLs, reduce triglyceride level, decrease blood pressure and prevent abnormal heart rhythms. There are two types of polyunsaturated fats.
Omega-3 fatty acids
These come mainly from fish (especially tuna, salmon, mackerel and sardines), but also from ground flaxseeds, walnuts, canola oil, and un-hydrogenated soybean oil. Past studies indicated that omega-3’s may help prevent and treat heart disease and stroke, but a more recent research trial has cast some doubt. Due to anti-inflammatory properties, omega-3’s may improve symptoms of some autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and eczema.
Omega-6 fatty acids
Are found in vegetable oils such as safflower, soybean, sunflower, corn and walnut. They also appear to lower the risk for heart disease and may also reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
These are distinguished from polyunsaturated fats because they contain only one double bond of carbon atoms, as opposed to two or more. Foods that are high in monounsaturated fats include olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil, avocados and most nuts.
Studies show that populations that consume the high fat “Mediterranean Diet” have lower rates of heart disease. Most of their fat comes from olive oil. Monounsaturated fats might also benefit insulin levels and therefore blood sugar control.
Fats can be enjoyed.
Fats are not the enemy. They are vital to carrying out important biological functions–to sustain life! But not all fats are alike. Rather than trying to follow extremely low-fat diets, many experts now recommend that people replace saturated and trans fats in their diets with the healthier unsaturated fats.
So, strive to incorporate more of the beneficial fats into your life. This might mean eating a fattier variety of fish once or twice a week, cooking with olive oil, and/or including a handful of nuts every day. Experiment with the various healthy oils–they can make for some delicious meals and salad dressings. Take your time in trying new things. You don’t need to be compulsive or overly strict, unless you have a medical condition with a prescribed special diet.
Be adventurous in trying new fats–in reasonable amounts for your body type, activity level and metabolism. They are an important component of a healthy, balanced diet.