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Understanding Fats

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There is a stigma attached to the word fat. Being fat is regarded as being unattractive and fat people are the butt of everyone’s jokes. While beauty is essentially a matter of individual perception, it is the health risks associated with overweight and obesity that should set you thinking as to why you need to lose fat.

Fats are an important part of the human diet. Fats give us energy to keep ourselves going and are needed by the body to build cell membranes, nerve tissue and hormones. Due to their ability to trap heat, fats act as an insulator providing us warmth in extreme cold. Fats are important for a healthy skin and good hair. They also help absorb fat-soluble vitamins including A, D, E and K and move them around the body. Isn’t that a handsome contribution to our health and general being? Indeed and this is precisely why you should never think of cutting out fats from your diet completely.

The Fats Family: A Character Sketch

So, why did fats earn a bad rep for themselves? Basically, because even though they are an important energy source, they contain few other nutrients. Secondly, and more important, all fats have been tarred with the same brush despite the fact that some of them are healthier than the others.

Fats are categorized as saturated fats, trans fats, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Of these, both saturated fats and trans fats count as harmful fats, while monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are regarded as healthier fats.

1. Saturated fats

Saturated fats are typically derived from animal sources and also from some plant sources like palm and coconut oils. Some of the common foods containing saturated fats are:

* Whole-fat milk and cream
* Butter
* High-fat cheeses
* Ice cream and ice cream products
* High-fat cuts of meat

The problem with eating stuff that contains saturated fats is that it makes the level of cholesterol in your blood rise. A high level of blood cholesterol implies a greater risk of heart disease and stroke. And since many foods high in saturated fats are high in cholesterol as well, there’s all the more reason to keep your guard up.

2. Trans fats

Trans fats are formed when hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oils to convert them into semi-solid fats to increase the shelf life of foods. For this reason, trans fats are also called partially hydrogenated oils.

Trans fats are found in fried foods and commercially baked foods such as:

* French fries
* Doughnuts
* Pastries, pie crusts, biscuits, pizza dough, cookies, crackers
* Stick margarines
* Shortenings

If saturated fats are bad, trans fats are villainous. They are like a multi-edged sword! They increase your bad cholesterol level (LDL) and lower your good cholesterol level (HDL). So, you know your risk for heart disease and stroke rises. But as if this were not enough, trans fats also make you prone to developing Type 2 diabetes.

3. Monounsaturated fats

Moving on to the beneficial fats, the first of the duo is the monounsaturated fats. These fats are liquid at room temperature but start to turn solid when chilled. Olive oil is an example of a type of oil that contains monounsaturated fats. These are drawn from sources like:

* Olive oil
* Canola oil
* Peanut oil and peanut butter
* High oleic safflower oil
* Sunflower oil
* Sesame oil
* Avocado
* A number of nuts and seeds

Eaten in moderation, monounsaturated fats can have a positive effect on your health. Unlike saturated and trans fats, these can help bring down bad cholesterol levels in your blood and reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke. They provide nutrients to help develop and maintain your body’s cells and are typically high in vitamin E.

4. Polyunsaturated fats

The second of the pair of healthier fats is polyunsaturated fats. These are liquid at room temperature as well as when chilled. Common sources of this variety of fats include:

* Soybean oil
* Corn oil
* Safflower oil
* Walnuts
* Flaxseeds
* Fatty fish like trout, herring, mackerel and salmon

Polyunsaturated fats offer the same health benefits as the monounsaturated fats. The best thing about these fats is that they also include Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids which the human body needs but can’t produce itself, and which are essential for the proper functioning of the brain and the normal growth and development of the body.

The Big Question: What to Eat and How Much

It is abundantly clear that your body needs fats for a number of important processes. So, a no-fat diet is simply out of question as it will eventually kill you, while a low-fat diet may end up making you very sick.

This means that it is not a question of whether to include fats in your diet but which ones to include and in what quantities. The following table tackles this question.

Now, you know that you should consume saturated and trans fats only minimally and try and replace them with mono and polyunsaturated fats. Replace solid fats with liquid oils. Eat more of fish and nuts. Have beans or legumes in place of meat to the extent possible. Always look for the nutrition facts on food packs you buy. At the restaurant, ask what oil the food is cooked in.

Remember, the different categories of fats are different only to the extent that some are beneficial to your health while others are harmful. However, in terms of calories, all fats contain nine calories per gram. Which means that all fats are equally high in calories. Consuming more than the recommended amount of fats is an invitation to the unwanted fat accumulating in different parts of your body making you both unhealthy and unattractive.

An extra word on trans fats. Trans fats occur naturally too in some meat and dairy products. Beef, lamb and butterfat are examples. It is yet to be established if these are as bad as those obtained through industrial processes. Yet, it is preferable to limit your consumption of trans fats to those obtained from natural sources. Another point to remember is that foods labeled as “Trans fat free” are not automatically healthy as they may contain saturated fats. Besides, most of these foods tend to be high in sugar content and low in other nutrients, making them unhealthy in other ways.

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