You usually only hear about fat in connection with someone wanting to lose it. But what really is fat? From saturated fat to fatty acids, here is what you need to know about fat.
What Is Fat?
At the basic level, fat is your body’s fuel reserve – whenever you eat more calories than you burn, your body will turn the excess into fat. When you eat fewer calories, it will turn the reserves into energy.
Fat also is your energy source for low maintenance tasks like reading this text (that is, if you aren’t reading it while running or weightlifting, but I assume that most of my readers sit down to read what I wrote) and plays an important role in making some things inside your body work. To name but one, some vitamins (A, D, E and K) couldn’t do their job if fat wasn’t around.
Out of the three nutrients that deliver energy to your body (fat, carbohydrates and protein), fat has the most calories: 9 per gram.
Saturated Vs. Unsaturated
Chemically speaking, fat consists of triglycerides, glycerol and fatty acids. The first two are only really of interest to the scientists among us, so let’s concentrate on the fatty acids. When you hear people talking about “saturated” or “unsaturated” fats, they in fact are talking about these two:
- Saturated fatty acids you find in food from animal sources (milk, meat etc.) and due to their chemical makeup stay solid at room temperature. Their main purpose is providing thebody with energy, but unfortunately also influence the “bad” LDL cholesterol level, which can lead to an increase in heart disease and related illnesses.
- Unsaturated fatty acids are often found in plant sources and stay liquid at room temperature. Instead of increasing the “bad” cholesterol, they aid the “good” HDL cholesterol.
Mono- And Polyunsaturated Fat
What you probably already have taken away from this is that it usually is a good idea to eat fat that is liquid at room temperature.
Yet once you wrapped your head around that and head over to the supermarket to buy some of the goodness in form of olive or safflower oil, you find yourself assaulted with the next terms: mono- and polyunsaturated fats.
These get their name from a difference in their “hydrogen bonds,” but what you should really remember about them comes down to polyunsaturated fats spoiling more easily, even when refrigerated, and that they come with high amounts of…
Essential Fatty Acids
The “essential” in the name of essential fatty acids already gives away what they are about: they are essential for your health, yet the body mostly can’t build them itself. There are two of them:
- Omega-3, which in small quantities the human body can produce itself, and help organs and cells in your body to function properly, support oxygen circulation and aid red blood cells in their functioning. They may also reduce inflammation and lower the risk of chronic diseases like cancer and arthritis.
- Omega-6 the body can’t build at all. They take part in hair and skin growth, and, like their Omega-3 relatives, help against cancer and arthritis, lower blood pressure and many more. Contrary to Omega-3, most people do get enough Omega-6 from their nutrition.
This practically makes it look like a no-brainer to go for polyunsaturated fats, as they are high in Omega-3 and -6. However, while both are beneficial to health, and many people don’t get enough Omega-3 from their nutrition, too much of a good thing can be bad.
Last but not least, these guys, that you often hear about at the moment. Trans fats are poly- or monounsaturated fatty acids that in an industrial process are made more solid and less likely to spoil. Foods made with them look less greasy and stay good for longer.
Unfortunately that is about all the good you can say about them, because an increasing amount of research shows that trans fats not only lower HDL cholesterol, but simultaneously also raise LDL cholesterol level. Where saturated fats may be an enemy excursion on your heart health, trans fats are a full-grown offensive and you may want to avoid them as good as you can.
Food labels sometimes state trans fats as “partially hydrogenated” vegetable oil, but it’s the same thing.
The Best Sources Fatty Acids
First of all, supplements never, ever make up for bad nutrition, so don’t kid yourself into thinking that the currently popular fish oil pills do so for your lack of fatty acids. One of the best sources for Omega-3 is real fish, which will not only provide you with adequate amounts of that fatty acids, but also with protein, vitamins and minerals.
Second, if you eat more than you need your body will store the excess as body fat. It won’t make any difference at all if the extra energy was saturated or unsaturated fat or whatever else. It will contribute to you being overweight and you will suffer from all the health problems connected to that.
You got it all covered if you keep your weight in the healthy range, let 30% of your daily calories come from fat and eat a wide variety of food (fish, oils, nuts and seeds, milk, meat etc.).
Picture courtesy of “pointnshoot“.