Until few years ago, the term “fat” was a big curse in the fitness industry. Every single expert, trainer and fitness enthusiast suggested people who wanted to lose weight to stay away from it.
Anything that contained fat were urged to throw out of the diet. A fat-free version of almost everything was released in the market, making it a billion dollar industry.
But the million dollar question is, did that make people healthy and fit? The truthful answer would be NO!
In the urgency to get rid of fat, we forgot to distinguish good fat from bad fat.
Many studies have shown in the past that the bad fat present in meat, dairy products and high-calorie foods are harmful to the body and leads to heart diseases.
But before we reach an obvious conclusion that all types of fat are bad and should be eliminated, let’s try and understand what is fat, the components, types and the effects.
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What exactly is fat?
Contrary to arguments and popular belief, fat is necessary for human body to survive. Fat is a nutrient and a source of energy. One gram of fat contains 9 calories, while one gram of protein and carbohydrate contain 4 calories each.
Fat, when in excess, is stored throughout the body for consumption during lean times, by converting it into glycogen. It also acts as a cushion to protect our internal organs, which will otherwise be prone to damage.
Dietary fats are irresistible because it makes the food tastier, improves the smell and flavor. In simple terms, fat makes any food item more sellable.
According to the US department of health, the maximum amount of fat consumption should be 30% of the total calorie intake. Any diet that includes 30% or less amount of fat is considered as a good diet.
But many items are loaded with huge amount of fat, which results in more fat consumption (sometimes, more than 40%) per day. This, combined with a sedentary lifestyle, results in heart diseases, obesity, and high cholesterol.
It is important to distinguish good fat from bad fat as good fat is necessary for healthy body functioning. Identify foods that are a source of good fat and include them in the diet and minimize those items that are loaded with bad fats.
For this, let’s understand different types of fats.
The different types of fat
Fats, in a broader sense, can be classified into saturated fat, trans-fat and unsaturated fat. The basic difference comes down to the molecular structure of fat.
Each molecule is combination of hydrogen and carbon. The ratio of hydrogen atoms to carbon atoms is the deciding factor of whether it is a saturated, unsaturated or trans-fat. Let’s see each of them in detail.
Saturated fat is also known as “Solid fat” because of its molecular structure. These fats are solid at room temperature. The hydrogen atoms would be higher than the carbon atoms in saturated fats.
The molecules form regular shapes and form as clumps easily. These clumps possess a sticky nature and can easily stick to the arteries one after the other, making a person overweight or obese and prone to coronary heart disease.
Some of the foods that contain a good amount of saturated fat are red meats such as lamb, pork, fatty beef, beef fat, poultry with skin and dairy products such as butter, cheese, and any product that is made from whole-milk.
Furthermore, many fried and baked items such as French fries, cookies, cakes and oily foods contain high amount of saturated fat. Some of the oils such as coconut oil, cocoa butter and palm oil are also high on saturated fat.
The more a person consumes saturated fat, the higher would be the amount of cholesterol in his body.
Cholesterol is a free flowing fat, produced by the liver, which is essential for cell functioning and the building block for other vital components in the body. But excess cholesterol will hinder oxygen flow throughout the body and results in heart diseases.
Trans-fat or hydrogenated fat is a chemically processed form of unsaturated fat. This type of fat is treated with additional amount of hydrogen. The main purpose of this fat is to act as a flavor-enriching component and offers no nutritional value.
Trans-fat increases the amount of bad cholesterol in the body and causes a myriad of heart diseases. It raises the LDL (Low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol which puts your heart at risk. The LDL cholesterol level should always be less than 100 mg/dL. Anything above 130 mg/dL is considered as high and harmful.
Excess consumption of trans-fat can cause the LDL cholesterol to rise and affect the healthy functioning of heart. This is a fat that one should try and minimize as much as possible.
Some of the foods that are high in trans-fat are processed foods, partially hydrogenated oils, cookies, chips, crackers etc.
Now, as you might have rightly guessed, unsaturated fats are those with a lower amount of hydrogen atoms in the molecular structure. At room temperature, this fat is in liquid state.
Most of the unsaturated fats are oils such as olive oil, sunflower oil, canola oil, safflower oil, sesame oil, and plant-based such as avocado, walnuts, almond, groundnut, soybean, seafood, flaxseed and many more.
It is always recommended to replace your intake of saturated fat with unsaturated fat for a healthier body and organ functioning.
Unsaturated fats can further be divided into monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats help to increase the amount of good HDL cholesterol and lower the level of LDL cholesterol.
However, it is worth mentioning that consumption of monosaturated fat without reducing the intake of saturated fats may not fetch you the optimum benefits.
Polyunsaturated fats are found mostly in vegetable oils and seafood. Like monounsaturated fats, replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat will also help to lower the level of LDL cholesterol.
Polyunsaturated fats can be further classified into omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega 3 fatty acids help to reduce risk of heart disease, promote brain functioning, improve eye health and regulate cholesterol levels.
Omega-6 fatty acids promotes skin health, hair growth, bone health, and metabolic rate. They are mostly found in vegetable oils such as safflower and corn oil.
Is saturated fat bad or good?
One of the main reasons for listing saturated fat as a bad option for your health is due to the increase in LDL cholesterol level it can cause. This cholesterol, in excess, will result in serious heart diseases and chronic health issues such as obesity, high blood pressure.
Considering the fact that the leading cause of death in the US and many parts of the world is heart disease, it is only logical to say that bad fat can be a serious threat to good health.
The American Heart Association recommends a maximum of 7% of saturated fats in your daily calorie intake. So if a person is consuming 1500 calories per day, the amount of saturated fat should be no more than 105 calories. If you are someone with an already high cholesterol, then the minimum intake should further be reduced to 5% or 6%.
Another reason to minimize saturated fat is the high calorie per gram it contains. While protein and carbohydrates each comes with 4 calories per gram, fats offer as much as nine calories per gram. Hence, consuming even 200 – 250 calories a day can slowly increase your weight without you even realizing it.
However, not all saturated fats are bad. Some of the items such as coconut oil, palm oils and other tropical oils. While meats and dairy products come with fat and high dietary cholesterol, these oils are cholesterol free and are healthier.
A study conducted by Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition also found that using coconut oil can even increase HDL cholesterol, which is good cholesterol.
Should you consume fat?
The one word answer is YES!
Fat is an essential nutrient that plays a vital role in healthy body functioning. Research suggests that even saturated fats, in ideal amount, is good for the body.
The solution lies in identifying and including good fats in your diet. When it comes to trans-fat, try to avoid it as much as possible as the molecular structure is artificially modified to enhance flavor profile, with very less nutritious value and greater risks.
Include unsaturated fats in the right amount as it is a healthy source of nutrition and plays a key role in cell development and health.
As for saturated fats, consume in moderation and replace with good fat whenever possible.
The debate on whether saturated fat is good or bad is still on and heated. Many studies are out there favoring and declining the theory that saturated fat can cause heart diseases and is harmful.
However, it is just a small part of a larger picture which needs to be considered while making a decision. Eating healthy and making small changes to the lifestyle can easily overcome the effect of saturated fats.
Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com
|Ann Nutr Metab. 2017 Apr; 70(1): 26–33.: Saturated Fat Consumption and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease and Ischemic Stroke: A Science Update
|WebMD: The Bad Cholesterol
|Consumer Health Digest: New Findings May Explain The Advantages Of Polyunsaturated Fat
|American Heart Association: Saturated Fats
|Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Coconut oil is associated with a beneficial lipid profile in pre-menopausal women in the Philippines.
|Richard D. Feinman: Saturated Fat and Health: Recent Advances in Research