The role and requirement of dietary fats is a big jigsaw puzzle. New controversies and the latest research findings fuel an already confusing fat debate. Let's attempt an accurate understanding of this complex ‘fat jigsaw puzzle’ by first identifying the essential puzzle pieces (the different types of fats), then understanding which pieces fit together (the pros and cons of each type), and finally interlocking the best pieces ( or the healthy fats) together to create a perfect model of optimum health.
The macronutrient fat is critical for proper functioning of our body systems. Fats are a great source of energy, cushion vital organs, aid in vitamin synthesis, and influence the insulin response to blood glucose levels. They also ease inflammation and boost soft skin and lustrous hair. However, not all fats are created equal. While taking the right amounts of healthy fats can contribute to sustained endurance, better cardiac health, and even a well sculpted body, placing the wrong ones on your plate can be disastrous.
While all fats are composed of a chain of carbon atoms bonded to hydrogen atoms, they differ in length and geometry of their carbon backbones, how the carbon atoms are connected, and the total number of hydrogen atoms attached.’’ Based on the above, fats can be broadly categorized as:
Saturated Fats: These fat molecules have the maximum number of hydrogen atoms attached to carbon atoms in the poly carbon chain and hence the term ‘saturated.’ Saturated fats are present in meats, bacon, sausages, whole fat milk, cheese, butter, palm oil and cocoa butter. Saturated fats are a direct threat to our heart health. It is recommended that less than 10% of daily calories come from saturated fat.
Unsaturated Fats: Depending on the number of empty spaces on the carbon tail, the unsaturated fats can be either mono (one empty space) or poly unsaturated (many empty spaces).
Good sources of monounsaturated fatty acids or MUFAs include olive oil, avocados, pumpkin seeds, and nuts like almonds and walnuts.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids can be either derivatives of linolenic acid (omega 3 fatty acids, as in fatty fish) or linoleic acid (omega 6 fatty acids, as in sunflower, corn, or soybean oil). Ideally, you want to keep a polyunsaturated fat ratio of 4:1 (omega 6: omega 3) - aiding the fight against free radical damage, the regulation of heart rhythms, and repair of cell membranes.
Trans Fats: These refer to fats which are usually artificially created by adding hydrogen atoms to the unsaturated fats through a chemical process called hydrogenation. The addition of trans fats can surely enhances the flavor, enjoyment, shelf life, and stability of a processed foods, but they also cause adverse effects on our heart health. Trans fats are commonly found in margarine, baked goods, french fries and packaged snacks.
Meet the Cholesterols
The next puzzle piece in the big fat story is the concept of ‘good cholesterol’ and ‘bad cholesterol.' Cholesterol has long been touted as the enemy but is in fact crucial for our cell membranes and brain activity. Cholesterol molecules cannot dissolve in the blood, so they need specialized carriers called lipoproteins to travel through the blood.
LDL: Low density lipoproteins, or LDL, are responsible for the transport of cholesterol from liver to cells. Elevated levels of this ‘bad cholesterol' in the blood are associated with plaque, clogged arteries, stroke, and heart attack.
HDL: HDL, or high density lipoproteins, help to carry the excess cholesterol from the tissues to the liver for its excretion. This ‘good cholesterol’ is heart-friendly and provides protection against unwanted build up of LDL in the arteries, lowering the risk of diseases.
Triglycerides: These are a type of fat found in your blood. You need some triglycerides for good health. If you regularly eat more calories than you burn, however, particularly carbohydrates and fats, you may have too much triglyceride circulating in your blood. High triglyceride levels can lead to serious heart complications.
Good Vs Bad Fats
Good and bad fats are determined by the effect on the blood's total level of cholesterol - LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and triglycerides. Saturated fats, in particular, drive up your total cholesterol, favoring LDL cholesterol, the destructive type that promotes formation of blockages in the coronary arteries.
Trans fats are even worse for you than saturated fats. Not only do they increase your LDL cholesterol, but they also reduce your beneficial HDL cholesterol. They are the ‘very bad fats.’ Unsaturated fats (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated) are the ‘good fats,’ as they bring down the levels of triglycerides and LDL cholesterol, provide energy, and even assist in weight loss. Your total fat intake should be 20-30 percent of your daily calories. Limit saturated fat to less than 10 percent and trans fats to 1 percent of total calories.
The Bottom Line
Keeping track of your fats can be fairly easy when you stick to meals built upon whole grains, fresh fruits, vegetables, beans, and nuts. Read labels carefully. Eat fish thrice a week, snack on nuts, and replace butter with canola or olive oil. Remember, all fats are energy dense and eating too many, even the ‘good ones’ can build up your total calorie intake, resulting in weight gain and metabolic disorders. The best way to keep your waistline trim and heart healthy is to include the better fats in moderation.
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