Dietary fat is often seen as the villain when it comes to obesity and associated health conditions, such as heart disease, high cholesterol and diabetes. However, dietary fats along with protein and carbohydrates are a necessary part of a healthy diet. Fats are an indispensible source of the essential fatty acids that are needed for proper brain development and function, inflammation control, and the formation of healthy cell membranes. Healthy fats provide a concentrated energy source for most of our cellular and life functions. Fats aid in the transport of fat-soluble vitamins including vitamins A, D, E and K, assist in the production of hormones, maintain healthy skin and hair, and protect organs. With 9 calories of energy in every gram, fat is the most powerful food energy source. By contrast, proteins and carbohydrates provide 4 calories of energy in every gram.
Dietary fat and cholesterol are not one and the same. As a vital part of the body’s chemistry, cholesterol is used in the production of steroid hormones that are necessary for normal development and functioning. Cholesterol is also involved in the production of cortisol which helps regulate blood sugar levels, is used to make the bile that aids in the digestion and absorption of dietary fat, and provides immune system support. Your body has the ability to manufacture all the cholesterol it needs for proper function.
When consumed in excess, dietary cholesterol and animal fats affect the body’s cholesterol production. A diet high in animal fats will cause a slowdown in the production of cholesterol, whereas a diet with foods from plant sources will cause the body to manufacture cholesterol to meet its needs. Most Americans consume too much dietary fat and cholesterol, mainly from animal fat and prepackaged and processed foods. Elevated blood cholesterol levels are a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and atherosclerosis. Types of dietary fats include:
- Lipids – The scientific term referring to naturally occurring molecules that include fats, cholesterol and triglycerides. Lipids are a structural component of cell membranes, and are involved in energy storage and signaling.
- Triglycerides – The main form of fat found in the diet and stored in the body. Triglycerides play an important role in metabolism as energy sources and transporters of dietary fats.
The “bad” fats:
- Saturated fats – Normally solid at room temperature, most saturated fats are found in animal products including meat and dairy products, and in some tropical plant oils such as coconut and palm oil. Saturated fats raise total cholesterol levels.
- Hydrogenated fats – These unsaturated fats are processed to become solid at room temperature. Packaged and processed foods such as cookies, crackers and margarine contain hydrogenated fats. Hydrogenated fats can also raise total cholesterol levels.
- Trans fatty acids – Small amounts of trans fatty acids are found naturally occurring in meat and dairy products. Artificial trans fats are formed during hydrogenation, where hydrogen is added to liquid oil, turning it into a solid fat. This process extends shelf life, increases stability and provides texture. These fats can be found in partially hydrogenated margarines, white bread, fast foods and snack foods. The American Heart Association recommends limiting this type of dietary fat to less than 1% of your total daily caloric intake which translates to approximately 2 grams. Trans fatty acids tend to raise total cholesterol levels.
The “good” fats:
- Monounsaturated Fats – Liquid at room temperature, monounsaturated fats are primarily found in plant oils and include olive, canola and peanut oil. Fish and nuts are another good dietary source. Monounsaturated fats lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and raise HDL (good) cholesterol levels.
- Polyunsaturated fats – Liquid at room temperature, sources include many common vegetable oils such as corn, soybean, safflower, sesame and sunflower oils, plus avocados, olives and walnuts. Polyunsaturated fats lower total cholesterol levels.
- Essential fatty acids – Omega-3 fatty acids including DHA and EPA are found in high-fat cold water fish, as well as nuts and seeds and fortified eggs. Omega-6 fatty acids, or LA, can be found in soybean, corn, and safflower oils. Essential fatty acids are not made by the body and must be obtained through the diet. Essential fatty acids lower triglycerides and total cholesterol levels.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 and the Institute of Medicine recommend that consumption of hydrogenated and trans fats be kept to a minimum. Consumption of trans fats raises LDL, the bad cholesterol, increasing the risk of coronary heart disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S. Major contributors to trans fat intake include fried foods, microwave popcorn, frozen pizzas, cake, cookies, margarines, prepared cake frosting and coffee creamers.
To reduce trans fats in the diet:
- Read nutrition labels. Choose products with 0 grams of trans fat. Products containing less than 0.5 grams of trans fats can be labeled as trans fat free. In order to avoid all trans fat, check the ingredient labels for any partially hydrogenated oil.
- Check labels for cholesterol content. Look for foods with 5% or less of the Daily Value. The American Heart Association recommends limiting dietary cholesterol intake to less than 300 mg.
- Limit total fat intake to less than 25 – 35% of your total daily calories. Limit saturated fat intake to less than 7% and trans fats to less than 1% of daily caloric intake. A minimum of 10% of daily calories should come from fats. Limit your intake to less than 78 grams of fat per day and choose healthy unsaturated fats.
- Limit fried fast foods which contain both saturated fat and trans fat.
- Choose monosaturated and polyunsaturated fats. The bulk of your fat intake should come from fish, nuts, seeds and naturally occurring non-hydrogenated vegetable oils.
- Choose a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, high-fiber foods, and low fat dairy. Choose lean meats and include cold water fish such as salmon or halibut several times a week.
The typical American diet contains roughly 35 – 40% fat. This dietary fat consumption plays a significant role in the obesity epidemic. Choosing healthier types of dietary fats is one of the most important factors to reduce the risk of developing heart disease, obesity, cancer and diabetes. Reducing the total fat content of your diet will help control your weight and that alone may help you live a longer and healthier life.
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