What You Need to Know about Fat and Your Family’s Diet
The word fat means different things to different people and is often cause for confusion. For many, fat has a negative connotation and should be avoided or battled daily. Food manufacturers take advantage of society’s distaste for fat by marketing low-fat foods, implying that these products will help you manage or lose weight. The marketers offer the notion that fats are a component of many foods that we eat, and that minimizing fat intake is a good thing.
Some people have heard the true story about fat and know it just is not that simple. There are indeed both good fats and bad fats—some we need, some we should avoid. Words like trans-fat, fatty acids, omega-3 fats, and cholesterol add to the general confusion. Well, it is time to clear up the confusion.
For a dietitian, the word fat has a technical and precise meaning as one of the fundamental categories of nutrients that are required by our bodies for healthy functioning (the other commonly referred to nutrients are carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, and minerals).
There are different varieties of fats: some are essential for good health, while other fats can have harmful and even deadly consequences for you and your family. The four basic varieties of fats are:
- Monounsaturated fats
- Polyunsaturated fats
- Saturated fats
The monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are collectively known as the unsaturated fats and are good for you. The saturated and trans-fats are generally unhealthy fats—and trans-fats are the absolute worst of the entire lot.
Monounsaturated fats are found in plant oils, such as peanut, canola, and olive oils. The health benefits of these fats are related to their impact on cholesterol levels in your body. Cholesterol plays important roles in your body, including helping in the formation of cell membranes and hormones. So, cholesterol, often derided as a health concern, is not intrinsically bad for you; it is in fact essential to your body’s healthy functioning.
It’s important to know, there are two varieties of cholesterol: LDL, or bad cholesterol, and HDL, or good cholesterol. If too much LDL cholesterol builds up in your arteries it can cause atherosclerosis (clogged arteries) and heart disease. Eating monounsaturated fats reduces the levels of bad cholesterol in your body and raises the level of the good, constructive cholesterol. It is hypothesized that for this reason a Mediterranean diet, or one high in healthy olive oil, can contribute to reduced risk for heart disease.
Polyunsaturated Fats, Saturated Fats, and Trans-Fats
Polyunsaturated fats are found in certain fish such as salmon and tuna, as well as in soybean oils. This group of fats includes the omega-3 and the omega-6 fatty acids, also known as essential fatty acids because your body can’t manufacture them and they must be consumed through eating. These fats play several critical roles in your body, including fostering healthy growth of cells.
Saturated fats differ from unsaturated fats in that they are typically solid at room temperature, whereas unsaturated fats are typically liquids (such as oils). Butter is a typical example of a food high in saturated fat. Saturated fats are generally found in meat and dairy products. Eating saturated fats tends to raise the levels of both good and bad cholesterol in your body, and diets high in saturated fats have been implicated in increased risk of heart disease. You don’t actually need to consume any saturated fats—your body manufactures all the saturated fats it needs.
Finally, we come to trans-fats. These are an entirely man-made, un-natural phenomenon. And though you may not realize it, trans-fats are found in many, many manufactured and processed foods consumed by most people.
Trans-fats are derived from unsaturated fats through a process called hydrogenation, which involves heating the unsaturated fats in the presence of hydrogen to load extra hydrogen atoms into the fats. These fats were invented to give unsaturated fats a property important for food companies: it makes them solid at room temperature and allows the companies to make fat-filled foods with a solid form and a long shelf-life.
Trans-fats are also cheaper ingredients for food companies. Most margarines are full of trans-fat, and shortening is pure trans-fat. Many packaged cookies and pastries are packed with trans-fats, fast foods (especially French fries) are packed with trans-fats, and potato chips are often loaded with trans-fats too.
Be sure to read the labels on your food to see if they have the words hydrogenated oil or partially hydrogenated oil on the package. If they do, don’t purchase these products—they contain trans-fats. Because of the dangers of trans-fats, the FDA required food labels to break out the number of grams of trans-fats in foods in 2006.
Why are trans-fats harmful? They actually have the opposite effect of monounsaturated fats: they raise levels of the bad cholesterol in your body and lower the levels of good cholesterol in your body. It is also hypothesized that trans-fats may contribute to degenerative diseases by interfering with a cell’s ability to process healthy fats. This illustrates that not all of the impacts of trans-fats on the body have been fully researched or discovered yet, but rather they are the subject of active scientific research. Because they are man-made chemicals and relatively new, we may yet discover that trans-fats have many other harmful effects as well.
How to Manage Fat in Your Diet
So, now you know that not all fats are created equal: Unsaturated fats have many important health benefits, and saturated and trans-fats, eaten in excess, can damage your health.
How do you protect your children and yourself? The key is to read food labels, pay attention to the amounts and types of fats in the foods you eat, and seek to emphasize the healthy fats. Try to substitute the saturated and trans-fat in your diet with unsaturated, healthy fats. This will greatly decrease your and your child’s risk for heart disease. Eating healthy fats also contributes to satiety (i.e. feeling full).
The total number of grams of fat recommended for a day is 70 for a typical 2,100 calorie diet. Keep in mind that a maximum of 21 of these grams should come from saturated and/or trans-fat (but even less is certainly desirable).
Having the right amounts of healthy fat in your daily diet will lead to greater satiety and help you to manage the overall number of calories you and your family consume.
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