What Are Dietary Fats?

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Over the past twenty years, there has been an explosion of research on the significance of fats in health and disease, causing us to rethink the role of such nutrients in our diet.

Considerable evidence has been accumulated to links fats with many of the most common forms of degenerative diseases afflicting society today, including cancer and heart disease. This has given rise to “no fat” and “low fat” trends in eating.

But it is fundamental to realize that not all fats are created equal. There are actually good and bad fats—some that support beneficial body processes and others that have detrimental effects.

Fats found in foods from plants and animals are known as dietary fat. It is one of the three recognized macronutrients, along with protein and carbohydrates, which provide our bodies with energy.

In particular, fat is essential to health because it supports a number of the body’s functions. Some vitamins, for instance, must have fat to dissolve and be absorbed as nourishment.

Healthy dietary fats include the unsaturated versions, both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Monounsaturated fat contains omega-9 fatty acids and is found in nuts, vegetable oils, avocado, olives, legumes, seeds, some types of fish, eggs and many varieties of cheese.

Polyunsaturated fat is also found in plant-based foods and oils, such as flax seed, peanuts, walnuts, soybeans, corn, sesame and sunflower seed. The type containing good omega-3 fatty acids is common in fish, such as sardines, salmon, mackerel, trout, herring and fresh tuna. These fats can actually decrease the risk of heart disease.

But there is a dark side to the story, too. Some types of dietary fat (and their cousin cholesterol) are known to play a role in cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes. Dietary fat may also promote other diseases, including obesity and cancer.

Broadly speaking, there are two main types of harmful dietary fats: saturated fat and trans fat. The former comes from animal sources of food. It raises total blood cholesterol levels as well as low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels associated with cardiovascular disease.

Trans fat also occurs naturally in some foods, but it is more commonly produced during food processing through partial hydrogenation of unsaturated fats. These “industrial” or “synthetic” trans fats can increase unhealthy LDL cholesterol and lower healthy high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.

Today, cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death globally. The World Health Organization has projected that by 2030 almost 23.6 million people will die from such diseases, mainly heart disease and stroke.

Knowing which fats to consume and which ones to avoid can be a big step toward preventing yourself from becoming part of such an epidemic.

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