The facts about fat

When it comes to reducing your risk for heart disease, we’re used to hearing about saturated and unsaturated fats, but despite the familiarity of those terms, which fats are best remains confusing.

Until now, only the amounts of saturated and unsaturated fat in foods, and their recommended daily intake, have been included on food labels to help consumers make healthier choices. But now, another kind of fat is hitting the headlines – trans fatty acids – and these are also being implicated in the onset of heart disease.

So what should you consider when you’re choosing something to eat? Which is more important: total fat, saturated fat, unsaturated fat or trans fatty acids? To help you make wise decisions, here’s a review of all the latest facts on fat:

Why do we need fat?

In our weight-conscious culture, fat is usually viewed as the enemy and for many, cutting back on fat has been taken to the extreme. However, too little fat, like too much, can be detrimental to your health. Fat is an essential nutrient and is needed for:

· The absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.

· Healthy skin. A sign that you are not getting enough fat is dry and flaky skin.

· The regulation of body temperature. The layer of fat just beneath the skin acts as insulation. That’s why lean people tend to be more sensitive to cold and obese people more sensitive to warm weather.

· Normal functioning of the nervous system. Fats are a vital part of the membrane that surrounds each cell and nerve fiber of the body.

· Reproduction. Fats regulate the production of sex hormones, which explains why some teenage girls who are too lean experience delayed pubertal development and amenorrhea (the absence of menstruation).

· Satiety. Fat provides a feeling of fullness and satisfaction. With too little fat, you may find yourself craving more foods, especially those high in fat.

Because of the important role of fat in the diet, healthy eating guidelines now recommend that we choose a diet that is low in saturated fat and cholesterol and moderate in total fat. A moderate fat intake is recommended as 30 percent of total calories.

The problem of too much fat

· Each gram of fat provides nine calories of energy, compared with only four calories per gram of carbohydrates and proteins. So all fats, including the good ones, are loaded with calories and when eaten in excess, can be a hazard to the waistline. For example, a tablespoon of ‘good fat’ (monounsaturated fat, like olive oil) provides 100 calories, as does a tablespoon of ‘bad fat’ (saturated fats, like butter).

· Eating too much fat, especially saturated fat and now trans fat, raises cholesterol levels, which is linked to many ongoing health problems, including heart disease, some cancers and diabetes.

Nutrition experts advise consuming no more than 30 percent of calories from fat. The current average intake is 34 percent, which is one of the reasons so many of us are overweight and heart disease is the number-one killer.

The good, the bad and the ugly fats

Better food habits can help you lower your cholesterol level, control your weight and reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. In order for you to make sensible food selections, it’s vital to understand the different types of fat.

The good fats: Unsaturated fats -
There are two types of unsaturated fat:

1. Monounsaturated Fat
These are mainly found in vegetable products, namely:
· Olive oil and rape seed oil (this also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids)
· Nuts such as cashews, macadamia, almonds and peanuts
· Avocados

What do they do?
These fats reduce total cholesterol and LDL (the ‘bad’) cholesterol, while not affecting protective HDL cholesterol.

Recommended intake: Not more than 10 to 25 percent of calories

2. Polyunsaturated Fat
There are two major groups of polyunsaturated fats: · Omega-6 fatty acids: They are mostly found in vegetable oils and margarines such as sunflower oil, safflower oil, soybean and corn oil.
· Omega-3 fatty acids: Good sources are oily fish, such as salmon and mackerel, and flaxseed and rape seed oil.

What do they do?
They lower LDL, which is good, but they also lower HDL slightly, which is not so good. However, omega-3 fatty acids are considered to be cardio protective as they reduce the tendency of the blood to clot, prevent abnormal heart rhythms and reduce inflammation.

Recommended intake: Not more than 10 percent of total calories

The bad fat: Saturated fat
These fats come mostly from animal fats, like:

· The visible fat in meat and poultry
· Dairy products such as butter, whole milk and cheese, whole-milk yoghurt and ice cream
· Palm and coconut oils

What do they do? These fats raise LDL (the ‘bad’) cholesterol, which clogs arteries and can lead to heart disease and stroke.

Recommended intake: Not more than 10 percent of total calories

The ugly fat: Trans fatty acids
Trans fats are those good unsaturated fats turned bad (or saturated) during a manufacturing process known as hydrogenation. Hydrogenation firms and solidifies liquid oils. Trans fatty acids are included in foods to increase the shelf life and stability of oils and foods that contain them.

They occur naturally in low amounts in meats and dairy products, but the majority of fats come from processed foods, like margarine, shortening and hydrogenated oils or pastries, biscuits and fried foods.

What do they do?
They increase total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol and reduce HDL cholesterol. In other words, they act just like saturated fat, but have the additional evil of lowering HDL.

Recommended intake: Upper safety limits on the consumption of trans fats have not been set. Instead, it’s recommended to reduce your dietary intake to the smallest amount possible to achieve a total intake of cholesterol-raising fatty acids (saturated fat and trans fatty acids) that does not exceed 10 percent of energy.

What should you do for good heart health?

· Replace the saturated fat in your diet with unsaturated fat, especially monounsaturated and omega-3 fatty acids. Choose fats and oils such as rape seed and olive oil, have two weekly servings of fatty fish and include foods such as avocadoes and nuts. For every one percent decrease in calories from saturated fats, there is a two percent lowering of cholesterol levels.

· Opt for foods that are generally low in fat, since they tend to contain fewer saturated and trans fats. Pick low fat milk products, fish, legumes (beans and pulses), skinless poultry and lean meats as well as wholegrain cereals, fruit and vegetables.

· Keep trans fats to a minimum. Currently, you need to look out for the following terms: "hydrogenated," "partially hydrogenated," or "vegetable shortening," on labels to know if the product contains any trans fats.

· Whenever possible, substitute one of the natural unsaturated vegetable oils listed above, in recipes calling for stick margarine, butter or lard. The harder the margarine, the more trans fats they contain.

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