Fat gets a bad rap as the culprit behind America’s obesity epidemic. But some fats don’t deserve the hate. By understanding the different between good fat and bad fat, as well as how they interact with your body, you can make healthier eating choices.
Thanks to a declaration by the American Heart Association in the 1950s encouraging a low-fat, high-carb diet, dieters and health conscious individuals rushed to judgment concerning fats and some banished them from their diets altogether. There wasn’t a lot to gain from this practice as healthier fats were eliminated as well, and consumption of nutritious grains diminished. Since then the AHA has adjusted their stance to target saturated fats and encourage whole grains, but they’re more to the picture.
Why We Need Fat
Fat contains more calories per gram than protein or carbohydrates, which means that it provides a lot of energy to the human body. It also assists in vitamin metabolism, builds cell membranes, protects nerve sheaths, and protects internal organs. Fat is essential to blood circulation, muscular movement, and even guards against inflammation.
However, consuming too much or the wrong kinds of fats can do more harm than good.
Monosaturated and polyunsaturated fats are classified as “good” fats, while trans and saturated fats are recognized by the AHA as “bad” fats. The difference between these fats lies in subtle differences in chemical structure; specifically the shape of carbon bonds and the number of hydrogen atoms per fat molecule. Unsaturated fats have a bent molecule, preventing them from condensing into solids at room temperature. Saturated fats have a straight molecule, enabling them to be solid at room temperature. These differences have a big impact on how fats interact with the human body.
Trans fats are the villains of the fat family. They are the result of artificial hydrogenation, a heating process that turns healthier oils into solids, thereby preventing the oils from going bad (rancid). When healthier oils are transformed into solids they are made more like unhealthy saturated fats. These transformed fats are usually viewed on food ingredient labels as “partially hydrogenated oil.” They can be found in margarine, vegetable shortening, baked goods, and fast or processed foods.
Consuming foods with trans fats adds the amount of bad LDL cholesterol to the bloodstream and lessens the amount of good HDL cholesterol. Trans fats are associated with diabetes, stroke, heart disease and other conditions. Nutrition experts recommend avoiding trans fats whenever possible.
Saturated fats are considered saturated because of the number of hydrogen atoms surrounding the carbon chain in a saturated fat molecule. The carbons are holding as many hydrogen atoms as possible, making them saturated with hydrogens. These kinds of fats are found primarily in animal fat, whole milk, cream, butter, and cheese.
Saturated fats increase total cholesterol in the human body and tip the scales towards LDL cholesterol accumulation, which can cause blockages in the arteries, heart and vascular system. Nutrition experts suggest that saturated fats should be limited in daily caloric intake and that polyunsaturated fats should be used to replace them in the diet.
Monounsaturated fats are liquid in form and are available through nuts, seeds, vegetables, and fish. Their chemical makeup consists of fewer hydrogen atoms attached to their carbon chains. It is a carbon-to-carbon double bond formation with fewer hydrogen atoms. Sources for monounsaturated and polysaturated fats are oils such as olive, peanut, sunflower, high-oleic safflower as well as avocados and various nuts.
Polyunsaturated fats are considered essential fats for normal bodily functions such as muscle movement, inflammation prevention and muscular movements. Most cooking oils are considered polyunsaturated, such as sunflower oil, corn oil, walnut and safflower oil. Their chemical makeup contains two double bonds in their carbon chain, and they are characterized as omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids both of which provide health benefits in lowering blood pressure, raising good cholesterol levels, preventing heart disease and strokes, reducing rheumatoid arthritis and dementia risks as well as lowering triglycerides (fats in the blood). The best sources for omegas include salmon, sardines, mackerel, walnuts, canola oil flax seeds, soybean oil (unhydrogenated) and foods rich in linoleic acid (polyunsaturated omega-6).
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