The Facts on Fat

May 20th, 2009

Fats are a necessary part of our diet and something our body needs to function properly. In addition to being an energy supply, fat is used to produce cell membranes and certain hormone-like compounds that regulate blood pressure, heart rate, blood vessel constriction, blood clotting, and the nervous system. Fat also aids the absorption and transport of fat-soluble vitamins, A, D, E and K. Plus it helps maintain healthy hair and skin, protect organs and heat your body.

We all know too much fat can be harmful. Diets high in fat can lead to weight gain and obesity, which in turn can lead to diabetes and heart disease. In addition, certain fats have been linked to harmful effects in the body that increase your risk of cancer and heart disease. The healthiest fats are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat, and these should make up most of your daily fat intake.

Monounsaturated fat:

Stays liquid at room temperature
May start to solidify in the refrigerator
Foods high in monounsaturated fat are olive oil, olives, peanuts, canola oils, avocados, and almonds
Diets high in monounsaturated fats are linked to reduced incidence of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity

Polyunsaturated fat:

Liquid at room temperature and in the refrigerator
Foods high in polyunsaturated fat include nuts, seeds and vegetable oils (safflower, corn, sunflower, soy and cottonseed oils)
Replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Omega-3 fatty acids:

An essential fatty acid (EFA) from the polyunsaturated family of fats
Good sources include flaxseeds, flax oil, and walnuts
Especially healthy for your heart, may lower the risk of coronary artery disease, protect against irregular heartbeats and help lower blood pressure levels

Saturated fat:

Usually solid or waxy at room temperature
Found in animal products, like red meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, butter and whole milk; also found in coconut, palm and other tropical oils
Diets high in saturated fats can elevate LDL (“bad’) cholesterol levels, which is a risk factor for heart disease.
The U.S. Government and AHA recommend keeping saturated fat to less than 10% of total calories. Another way to think of it is that no more than 1/3 of the fat you eat should be saturated fat.

Trans fats:

Artificially saturated fats created from polyunsaturated vegetables oils through a process called hydrogenation to reduce spoilage. Also created by heating vegetable oils to high temperatures, as in deep-fat frying.
Common ingredient in baked goods, fried foods, shortenings and margarines.
Considered the most dangerous of all fats, trans fats are thought to damage arteries and cells and increase the risk of heart disease and other diseases.
Experts recommend avoiding trans fats as much as possible.

Saturated and Unsaturated Fats in Oils

Most oils contain a combination of saturated and unsaturated fats. All fats, whether saturated or unsaturated, contain the same amount of calories about 100 calories per tablespoon. But oils lower in saturated fats may help you maintain healthy cholesterol levels, which reduces your risk of heart disease.

Planning your diet

Total fats should make up between 20 and 35% of your total calories. An ideal distribution would be:

  • 75% monounsaturated fat
  • 15% polyunsaturated fat (including omega-3 fatty acids)
  • 10% saturated fat
  • 0% trans fat

Tips to help you achieve an ideal “fat profile’:

  • Limit the fat in your diet, but don’t cut it out completely
  • Sauté with olive oil instead of butter
  • Use olive oil instead of vegetable oil in salad dressings and marinades
  • Use canola oil when baking
  • Sprinkle sliced nuts or sunflower seeds on salads instead of bacon bits
  • Snack on nuts instead of potato chips or processed crackers