Part 1: All sizes and varieties of fats
Do you get frustrated and confused about the whole discussion of fat and heart disease? First, they told us to avoid cholesterol and saturated fat. Then they said, “Fat is fat, ” and we were supposed to avoid it completely. Now people are talking about “the right fats” and “heart healthy fats. ” What, exactly, are you supposed to do?
Let’s start by starting over. Scientists and physicians have learned a lot in recent years about all kinds of nutrients, including fat. So let’s begin at the beginning. Part 1 of this article talks about what fats are. Part 2 tells you about monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and trans fats. Part 3 tells you how to use the information to create a heart healthy diet.
Fats Fats are a major nutrient, along with carbohydrates and proteins. These major nutrients compose the bulk of our food, and they are necessary for us to have in order to live.
Fats are calorie-dense. Each gram of fat has 9 kcal (calories), whereas each gram of carbohydrate or protein has only 4 kcal. If you are cutting calories, it makes sense to cut fats, right? To a certain extent, that is good advice; most of us eat more fat than we need.
However, we do need fat. We use fat in every cell in our bodies. Fat makes up the membrane around the cell and controls a lot of the metabolic processes both inside the cell and in our bodies. Fat is a component of hormones and many other biochemical substances that our bodies must have in order to function. Fat is also our primary reserve energy source. If you’re overweight and have extra fat, it just means that you have a good supply of extra energy.
Saturated and Unsaturated Fats Whether a fat is saturated or unsaturated has to do with its chemistry. Saturated fats are “saturated” with hydrogen; all of their bonding sites are filled and they don’t have any double bonds. What’s important about that is that unsaturated fats don’t participate in very many chemical activities within the body.
Saturated fats are used mostly to store energy and, if unsaturated fats are unavailable, to make cell membranes. The problem with that is that saturated fats stack up and pack together very nicely. When a cell membrane has lots of saturated fat in it, is thick and inflexible, and it can’t participate in metabolic chemical activities very well.
Saturated fats are not heart healthy fats; they raise your blood cholesterol, especially LDL. Saturated fats are found mostly in animal products, such as meat, eggs, and milk. Some vegetable fats—notably palm kernel oil and coconut oil—also contain saturated fats.
One time when a little saturated fat is good is if you are cooking at high temperatures. Saturated fats tend to burn before they break down into other substances. Unsaturated fats may break down into trans fats and other substances, some of which are toxic.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: freelance writer who worked as a critical care nurse for over twenty years, specializing in cardiovascular nursing.