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.
Fat: A Nutrient for Human Body
Contrary to arguments and popular belief, fat is necessary for human body to survive. Fat is a nutrient and a source of energy. 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.
Types of Fats
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. Let’s see each of them in detail.
Saturated fat: 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 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.
Trans-fat: 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 flavour-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. Excess consumption of trans-fat can cause the LDL cholesterol to rise and affect the healthy functioning of your heart. This is a fat that one should try and minimize as much as possible.
Unsaturated Fat: 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. Unsaturated fats can further be divided into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
Monounsaturated fats help to increase the amount of good HDL cholesterol and lower the level of LDL cholesterol. 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.
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. 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! Rather than completely eliminating fat from your diet, it is necessary to minimize bad fats that can adversely affect your health. Introducing good fats into your diet will help reap health benefits. So, it is necessary to take a balanced approach to fat consumption, which includes different types of fats in the right quantity.
Start by identifying sources of bad fats and limit your intake of such food items. For a healthy diet, it is recommended to replace saturated and trans-fat with the healthier unsaturated oils. Adding fish, nuts, seeds, whole grains, vegetables and other non-animal protein sources can help to balance the bad with the good fats.
In short, don’t demonize fat, learn to distinguish between the good and bad types, and include the healthy ones in your daily diet.