Understanding the health effects of fats

Understand the health effects of fats

Now more than ever, we need to understand the health effects of fats because of their effect on our health. 

Fats are one of the three primary nutrients in food, along with carbohydrates and protein, that your body needs to function.

They provide energy and help maintain cell membranes, which protect cells from damage and other substances entering them. Fats also help your body absorb vitamins A, D, E and K.

However, they also contain a lot of calories, which can contribute to weight gain. The right amount of fat in your diet depends on age, gender, activity level and health goals.

This article will help you learn about the different types of fat and the health effects of fats.

Structure of fats

The macronutrient lipid consists of fats and oils. Fats are formed by the combination of glycerol and fatty acid chain.

The number of carbon atoms in the fatty acid chain can vary between 4 to 36.

There are double bonds between these carbon atoms; if the number of the double bonds is one, it is called monounsaturated fatty acids. Those fats are called polyunsaturated fatty acids when there are multiple double bonds.

The functions and effects of fatty acids differ depending on the above arrangements.

What are good fats?

Healthy fats reduce bad cholesterol and lower the risk of heart attacks. Good fats are also essential for the nourishment of different groups of cells in the body.

There are two groups of healthy fats. These are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

Monounsaturated fats

Monounsaturated fats contain only one unsaturated (double) carbon bond. Also, oils containing monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. However, they turn into solid forms in cold environments.

There are different types of monounsaturated fatty acids, such as oleic acid, palmitoleic acid and vaccenic acid.

There are many dietary sources of monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs). In fact, these fatty acids are the central part of the heart-healthy diet, such as the Mediterranean diet. The foods rich in monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) are,

  • Olive oil
  • Safflower oil
  • sesame oil
  • Nuts, such as almonds, cashews, pecans and macadamias
  • Canola oil
  • Avocados
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Nut butter
  • Olives
  • Pork
  • Eggs
  • Peanut oil

MUFAs provide several health benefits that help reduce the risk of diseases among their consumers. The health benefits of monounsaturated fatty acids are:

  • Reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Aids in weight loss
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Decrease the risk of cancer
  • Help improve insulin sensitivity and benefits in blood sugar control

Polyunsaturated fats

Polyunsaturated fats are the type of good fats that contain more than one double bond in their chemical structure.

Polyunsaturated fats are further classified into two types:

  1. Omega-3 fatty acids
  2. Omega-6 fatty acids

Both of these fats are essential for the functioning of your brain cells.

The dietary sources of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids may differ as the most significant source of omega-3 is fish, while omega-6 is plant-based, except for coconut and palm oil.

The dietary sources of omega-3 fatty acids are:

  • Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines
  • Plant oils such as flaxseed oil, soybean oil, and canola oil
  • Nuts and seeds such as flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts

The dietary sources of omega-6 fatty acids are:

  • Plant-based oils such as safflower oil, grapeseed oil, flaxseed oil, and sunflower oil
  • Peanut butter
  • Tofu
  • Hemp seeds
  • Almonds
  • Walnuts
  • Cashews

Polyunsaturated fatty acids provide several health benefits. According to the American Heart Association, polyunsaturated fatty acids are better than saturated or trans fats as they help reduce the levels of bad cholesterol in the body, thus lowering the risk of heart diseases.

Other health benefits of polyunsaturated fatty acids are:

  • Improve infant development and healthy for breastfeeding mothers
  • Helps regulate blood glucose levels
  • Reduce the risk of age-related mental decline such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
  • Regulate inflammatory reactions

Regardless of all the benefits, polyunsaturated fatty acids if used improperly can cause obesity and increased inflammation which can be dangerous for the body.

What are the bad fats?

Saturated and trans fats have been identified as bad fats due to their negative impacts on health. These fats elevate the bad cholesterol (LDL) level in the body, thus increasing the risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Saturated Fats

Saturated fats are animal-based fats that have all single bonds in their chemical structure.

Unlike unsaturated fats, these fats are solid at room temperature so-called “solid fats”.

Saturated fats have different types depending upon the carbon chain length and therefore have different effects on health.

The dietary sources of saturated fats are:

  • Butter
  • Ghee
  • Cheese
  • Milk
  • Cream
  • Biscuits
  • Ice cream
  • Pastries
  • Sausages
  • Red meats such as pork, beef and lamb
  • Chicken with skin
  • Baked and Fried foods

As saturated fats are grouped among bad fats, so it is evident that these fats are unhealthy for the body.

The primary effect of saturated fats is on heart health. Saturated fats increase the level of LDL (bad) cholesterol in the body that builds up in the arteries and clog them.

This leads to interrupted blood flow and therefore increases the risk of heart attack and strokes (Ischemic). The blocked vessels increase resistance, which leads to elevated blood pressure.

Therefore, limiting the saturated fat content in your diet is essential. Only 5 to 6 per cent of daily calories are recommended from saturated fats. For example, for 2000 calories diet, you should add no more than 120 calories to it from saturated fat.

Trans fats

Trans fats are the type of dietary fats that are considered the worst of all fats.

Trans fats come in natural, such as beef, lamb, and dairy products and artificial forms such as cakes and frozen foods.

Although the moderate intake of natural trans fats is not so harmful, the consumption of artificial forms can increase the risk of coronary heart disease.

The dietary sources of trans fats are:

  • Margarine
  • French fries
  • Microwave popcorn
  • Cookies
  • Meat and dairy from ruminant animals

The unchecked consumption of trans fats causes several health risks such as:

  • Increased risk of cardiovascular diseases
  • Shorten pregnancy periods
  • Increased risk of breast cancer
  • Can lead to the development of type -2 diabetes

Due to these and many other health risks, experts suggest cutting down the use of trans fats, especially artificial forms.

The Bottom Line

Fats are an essential macronutrient for the body, but you need to be aware of the health effects of fats to take care of selecting foods.

Good fats such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are healthy as they increase the levels of good cholesterol (HDL) in the body.

On the other hand, bad cholesterol, such as saturated and trans fats is not considered healthy.

These fats increase bad cholesterol (LDL) levels, leading to several health problems, such as heart attacks.

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