What's the Big Fat Deal? Basic Facts on Fats

Does the word "fat" scare you? Which fats should you consume, and which ones should you avoid? How can fat possibly be "good?"

It seems as though there's always something new in the media that contradicts something just broadcasted the week before. Well, let's get the fat mess cleaned up right now. This article gives you the skinny on fats!

If the world made any sense at all, fat would make you fat, but it's simply not that easy (lucky for me). Fat is not evil, and it is actually a very necessary component of our diets, one we cannot live without.

The trick is striking the right balance of fat in your diet (15 to 20 percent of your overall calories) and choosing the right types of fat.

Fat's Job

Fat has many duties in our bodies. For starters, vitamins A, D, E, and K are all fat-soluble; meaning that they are carried in fat, dissolve in fat, and can only nourish our bodies if fat is present. Without fat, these vitamins would be unavailable to our bloodstream.

There are two essential fatty acids that we must consume in our diets because our bodies don't make them -- linoleic (an omega-6 fatty acid) and linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid). These fatty acids help kids grow normally, and among adults, they help maintain healthy skin and are used to make sex hormones.

Some good sources of these essential fatty acids are safflower oil, corn oil, sesame oil, soybean oil, Brazil nuts, pumpkin and squash seeds and peanut butter.

Fat also supplies energy (calories) to our bodies in a concentrated form. One gram of fat contains nine calories, while carbohydrates and protein only contain four calories per gram. Our bodies use the energy fat supplies, but if there is any extra, it is stored in our fatty tissues. When our bodies need some extra energy, it will turn to these fat stores.

Fat's other job responsibilities include cushioning organs and protecting them from injury, providing a fat layer for insulation, and satisfying hunger. Fat helps with satiety because it takes longer to leave your stomach, leaving you feeling fuller longer.

Other foods, like carbohydrates and proteins, come and go pretty quickly, which is why you get hungry one or two hours after a low-fat meal.

Fat Dictionary

Take a look at a food label to learn about what is in your food. The number listed beside the words "total fat" on the label is the number of grams of fat that result when you add up saturated, trans, and unsaturated fat.

It's important to remember that all fats are not created equal, and you must understand the differences in order to make the best choices when you are cooking at home or eating out.

Saturated fat is usually listed on a label right under the total fat. Saturated fats are bad fats and mostly come from animal foods like meat, poultry, butter and whole milk. This type of fat can also be found in coconut and palm oils.

Foods that have a great deal of saturated fat are usually solid at room temperature (butter and shortening). They are considered bad because they raise the body's levels of LDL cholesterol (the bad kind; think lousy) and lower HDL cholesterol (the good kind that helps fight heart disease; think healthy).

To limit saturated fat in your diet, eat lean meats, use low-fat dairy products, select oils and margarine that list vegetable oils as their first ingredient, and use less non-dairy creamers and rich baked products, like pastries, cookies, and cakes.

The butter vs. margarine debate continues to be a hot topic. The reason margarine has gotten a bad rap is that is contains trans fat, which like saturated fat, raises blood cholesterol, increasing the risk for heart disease.

Trans fat is the result of hydrogenating (adding an extra hydrogen to) vegetable oils to make them more shelf-stable and solid at room temperature.

You might need a refresher course in chemistry to understand hydrogenation, but you do not need a lot of information to understand that trans fat is bad for you. Whether you use butter or margarine, always use it in moderation.

Unsaturated fats are smart fats. Monounsaturated fats are the best choice because they lower LDL cholesterol without lowering HDL cholesterol. They are found mainly in plant foods, such as olive, canola, and peanut oils.

Polyunsaturated fat, found in sunflower, corn, soybean, and safflower oils, as well as in some fish, has been linked to decreasing total blood cholesterol by lowering LDL. Omega-3 fatty acids, which may help lower the risk of heart attacks, are highly polyunsaturated and are found mostly in seafood. Omega-6 fatty acids are also polyunsaturated, and they function to protect the body's cells. Sources of omega-6 fatty acids include whole grains, vegetable oils, seeds, and nuts.

The Fat End

Keep in mind that a fat is a fat. One fat has just as many calories as another does. Consider this: The amount of fat is the same in one teaspoon of margarine or butter, one teaspoon of mayonnaise, two teaspoons of conventional salad dressing, and three teaspoons of light margarine.

The best thing you can do for yourself is to choose the best fats and use them in moderation!

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