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Separating Fat from Fiction

Trying to make healthier food choices can be challenging at the best of times. There can be so much confusion surrounding different foods and their components. Understanding food labels and what they actually mean can make these choices easier for everyone, and can empower us to make more informed decisions.

Fat is a macronutrient which our bodies need to carry out certain functions. It is a component of many different foods and is found in many different forms. They can be divided into different classifications that carry different roles in the body.

As with many aspects of nutrition, there are often numerous myths and misconceptions surrounding fats. So, let’s try to clear some of these up by looking at the different types and the effects that each can have on our health.

Does eating fat make us fat?

First things first, the fat on our bodies is not solely due to consuming dietary fat. Certain low-fat diets may lead us to believe that this is the case.

If you consume more calories than your body needs, your body will convert this to adipose tissue and store it as fat. This happens with calories that come carbohydrates or protein as well. While fat may receive a hard time and is landed with a lot of the blame, it is not the only culprit.

Gram for gram, fats provide more calories than carbohydrates or protein. One gram provides 9 calories, while protein and carbohydrates each provide 4 calories per gram. This means that it is higher in energy than the other macronutrients. For this reason, it is often recommended to reduce the amount we consume in our diets, but there is no need to cut them out altogether.

Photo by Andres Ayrton from Pexels

To read more about carbohydrates, click the link below:

Do we need fats in our diet?

Yes! They play an important role in a healthy, balanced diet. They provide energy and are needed for the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. These vitamins all play vital roles in our health. They are also needed to insulate the body, protect our organs and produce cell membranes in our bodies. Furthermore, they are important in enabling us to taste food. The importance of this cannot be understated!

What are saturated fats and trans fats?

Saturated fats are found in foods such as butter, coconut oil, pastries and in fatty meats.

Trans fats are found in some cakes, biscuits, fried foods and partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Look out for this type of oil on food labels and avoid it if possible, as consuming a lot of these can be harmful.

Eating too much of these types on a regular basis may have long-term impacts on our health and is linked with a higher risk of heart disease.

Cholesterol is a fatty substance that is made in the body. There are two different types of cholesterol, called low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). HDL cholesterol can have positive health effects, by transporting excess cholesterol to the liver, where it is broken down.

Too much LDL cholesterol can be harmful, however. Eating a lot of saturated fats over time can increase levels of LDL cholesterol. This can lead to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

This does not mean that you have to avoid these foods for the rest your life, just that you should try to limit your consumption of them where possible. Enjoy these foods in moderation and as part of a healthy, balanced diet, but try to avoid consuming too much of them on a regular basis.

What are unsaturated fats?

Current guidelines recommend reducing our intake of saturated fats and replacing them with unsaturated types. This could help to reduce the long-term risk of cardiovascular disease.

Unsaturated fats are divided into different categories based on their chemical structures. These are called monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.

Monounsaturated Fats
monounsaturated fat

These are found in foods such as avocados, almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts and olive oil. They can help to maintain levels of HDL cholesterol and reduce levels of LDL cholesterol in the blood. This can protect heart health, so try to include these in your diet!

Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids
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These are found in oily fish, nuts and seeds. Oily fish is a particularly good source of Omega-3 fatty acids which are a specific type of polyunsaturated fatty acids.. They also help to lower levels of LDL cholesterol in the blood.

To promote heart health, it is recommended to consume two portions of fish per week, one of which should be oily fish.

What is the take-home message?

Fats play important roles in our bodies and we need a certain amount of them in our diets. They are not all created equal, and the different types have different effects on our bodies. This is something to bear in mind when reading food labels. We should avoid excessive intakes but remember that this does not mean cutting them completely out of our diets! Try to choose unsaturated types instead of saturated where possible and limit trans fats to protect your heart health.

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