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Breaking the Myths on Dietary Fats

Despite popular belief, not all dietary fats are bad for you. Fats can actually be good for you because they are a source of energy in foods. Fats are essential for the proper functioning of the body. They provide essential fatty acids, which are not made by the body and must be obtained from food.

There are fats that are bad for you and fats that are good for you. The essential fatty acids are linoleic and linolenic acid. They are important for controlling inflammation, blood clotting, and brain development. Fat serves as the storage substance for the body's extra calories. It fills the fat cells (adipose tissue) that help insulate the body. Fats are also an important energy source. When the body has used up the calories from carbohydrates, which occurs after the first 20 minutes of exercise, it begins to depend on the calories from fat.

What Are Fats?

Fats are organic compounds that are made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. They belong to a group of substances called lipids, and come in liquid or solid form. There are three types of fats:

  1. Saturated fats, which are generally solid at room temperature and tend to be animal products such as butter, cheese, whole milk, ice cream, cream, and fatty meats. They are also found in some vegetable oils, such as coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils. These are the biggest dietary cause of high LDL levels ("bad cholesterol") and are considered the "bad" fats. A diet high in saturated fat causes a soft, waxy substance called cholesterol to build up in the arteries and increases the risk of heart disease because of its high calorie content, which also causes obesity. That is why saturated fat should be limited to 10% of calories.
  2. Unsaturated fats, which are liquid at room temperature and are usually vegetable fats. These are your "good" or "healthy" fats. It is recommended that your intake of saturated fats be about 20% of your overall daily calorie intake. There are two types of unsaturated fats: 1) Monounsaturated fats, including olive and canola oils; and 2) Polyunsaturated fats, including fish, safflower, sunflower, corn and soybean oils.
  3. Trans fatty acids, which form when vegetable oil hardens, a process called hydrogenation - how you get hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated fats. So, if you see hydrogenated vegetable oil listed on the nutrition label, the food contains trans fats. Trans fats are man-made and were designed to improve flavor and shelf life. Trans fats are also "bad" fats, which is why it is recommended that you eat trans fats very sparingly because they can raise LDL levels and lower HDL levels ("good cholesterol"). Foods that are high in trans fats include fried foods, commercial baked goods, non-natural peanut butter, margarine, processed foods and vegetable shortening.

A Little About Cholesterol and Triglycerides

Cholesterol is a type of fat found in your body. It is used to build cells and certain hormones. Your total cholesterol is made up of LDL (low-density lipoprotein) and HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. LDL is called "Bad" Cholesterol because it can build up in the wall of arteries, which can slow or block blood flow and increase your risk of heart disease. HDL Cholesterol is called "Good" Cholesterol because it helps remove the LDL (Bad) Cholesterol from arteries.

Triglycerides, major components of very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) and chylomicrons, are a different type of fat found in your blood. They play an important role in metabolism as energy sources and transporters of dietary fat. High triglycerides can raise your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke and may be a sign of metabolic syndrome - the combination of high blood pressure, high blood sugar, too much fat around the waist, low HDL ("good") cholesterol and high triglycerides.

Switching from a diet high in saturated fats and trans fats to one with higher levels of healthy unsaturated fats, combined with regular exercise, can help lower your LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

Recommended Daily Fat Intake

The recommended daily intake in adults is 25 to 35 percent of total calories from fat. That's about 56 to 77 grams of fat or less per day if you eat 2,000 calories a day. The following table provides more guidelines:

Total calories per day Saturated fat in grams Total fat in grams
1,600 18 or less 53
2,0001 20 or less 65
2,200 24 or less 73
2,5001 25 or less 80
2,800 31 or less 93

1. Percent daily values on nutrition facts labels are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Values for 2,000 and 2,500 calories are rounded to the nearest 5 grams to be consistent with the nutrition facts label.

Source: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2005. Web: www.health.gov.

The above are only general guidelines for fat intake. The University of Maryland provides formulas for recommended daily caloric and fat intake based on your activity level and gender. See www.umm.edu/heart/caloric.htm for more information.

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