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How to Eat the Right Fats

Lipids, also known as fats, make up one group of essential macronutrients. With all the contradictory information available today, the truth on fats can be difficult to discern. Though we need fat in our diets, too much can be detrimental to our health. When we consume a diet high in fats, we increase our risk of obesity, heart disease, and cancer. A moderate intake of fat can provide our bodies with energy and essential vitamins including vitamins A, D, E, and K.

The fats in our diet are the only source for three of the essential fatty acids. A healthy amount of fats and oils in your diet will provide a reserve of energy, crucial to survival if your intake of calories becomes insufficient. In addition, fats play a vital role in the regulation of body temperature, and the protection of internal organs.

A healthy level of fat consumption will represent at least 10%, but no more than 25% of one's total caloric intake. Our diets are comprised of three forms of fats. These include saturated, unsaturated, and trans fats. A general assessment of these would result in the classification of saturated and trans fats as "bad fats" and unsaturated fats as "good fats". The main difference between each of these groups is the length and saturation of their fatty acid chains. The degree of saturation is determined by the number of hydrogen molecules in the chain. A chain with the maximum amount of hydrogen molecules is considered saturated. Intuitively, one might guess that a chain with fewer hydrogen molecules characterizes an unsaturated fat.


Consumption of saturated fats should be limited. These fats are solid at room temperature. Common sources include meats, butter, lard, coconut oil, cheese, and other dairy products. One benefit of saturated fats is that they are stable and less likely to spoil than unsaturated fats. Saturated fats have been linked with an increased risk of heart disease and cancer. Reading the labels of your favorite foods will help you determine the types of fat they contain.

Unsaturated fats are healthier than saturated fats. They protect against chronic diseases including heart disease. The category of unsaturated fats can be further broken down into groups of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Fatty acid chains with empty space for one more pair of hydrogen molecules is referred to as monounsaturated. These fats may reduce blood pressure, enhance blood flow, and reduce one's risk of cancer. The chains of polyunsaturated fats have vacancies for more than one pair of hydrogen molecules.

Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. Olive oil, olives, avocados, and sunflower oil are all sources of monounsaturated fats. Sources of polyunsaturated fats include soybean, and vegetable oils. Other unsaturated fat include nuts, fish and seeds as well as corn, peanut, and cottonseed oils.

As previously, mentioned unsaturated fats are not stable at room temperature. This means they are more likely to go rancid. For that reason, it is best to store unsaturated fats in dark containers, in your refrigerator. Alternatively adding antioxidants such as vitamin E to your favorite oils can decrease the risk of their spoiling.


Manufacturers try to overcome the instability of unsaturated fats through a process called hydrogenation. Hydrogenation involves chemically changing the structure of unsaturated fats by adding hydrogen molecules. When the unsaturated fat becomes saturated, it becomes solid, and is less likely to spoil. The resulting lipid is called trans fat. The most familiar form of trans fat is margarine, which is hydrogenated vegetable oil.

Our bodies have trouble metabolizing trans fat because they are unnatural and unfamiliar. Trans fats have been shown to increase blood cholesterol and the risk of heart disease. Studies have also found strong links between trans fat consumption and cancer. There also seem to be connections to increased risks of infertility, diabetes, and liver damage. Recently there has been promising talk about banishing foods containing trans fats. Denmark, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom have passed legislation restricting the use of trans fats. While the United States government has not yet enacted a ban, several local governments have taken the initiative. There was a lot of media attention when New York City placed restrictions on the use of trans fats in restaurants. Philadelphia, Chicago, and the state of California have passes similar restrictions.

These bans are an effort to safeguard the heath of the general population. Though the research can be confusing and difficult to decipher, one thing is clear; if government officials are feeling so compelled as to enact laws limiting its use, then the scientific findings regarding trans fats must be noteworthy. If there is a risk that these foods may have serious impacts on your health, then why take a chance?