Fat has already been stigmatized as one of the big villains in food, seen as a problem for those seeking healthy living. We have been encouraged many times to ban it from the diet whenever possible.
But what if I told you that fat is good for the body and is even essential for health?
Fats are essential nutrients for the functioning of the body:
- they are needed to build cell membranes
- they help protect the organs
- regulate body temperature
- in the absorption of vitamins and minerals
- contribute to the blood clotting process
- participate in the formation of hormones
- They are a great source of energy for the body.
What was actually lacking in clarification and evidence is that the foods we consume on a daily basis contain different types of fats, which can be beneficial or harmful to health. Everything will depend on what fat is present in the dish and also on the quantity and regularity with which it is ingested.
The fact is that when we opt for a low-fat diet, without being aware of it, we may not be consuming good and vital fats. To understand the importance of fats for the body, we can start from the fact that the body itself is responsible for their production.
The fat that our body supplies
Cholesterol is a type of fat that is produced in the body and also acquired in food. Synthesized by the liver, it is a chemical substance belonging to the group of steroids, i.e. high molecular weight alcohols.
What not everyone knows is that cholesterol is not only found in the blood, but in any tissue of the human body.
Although many still believe that cholesterol is only harmful, we must clarify that its excess is the problem, especially when it comes to cardiovascular health.
Among its attributions, cholesterol participates in the construction and maintenance of the membranes that surround our cells: it is part, for example, of the structure of brain cells, nerves, muscles, skin, liver, intestines and heart.
It is also used as a precursor (basic substance for the synthesis of another) of all classes of hormones (such as estrogen, progesterone, cortisol and testosterone) and is involved in the metabolism of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K). In addition, it participates in the production of bile acids which act in digestion.
Cholesterol and heart
In order for cholesterol to be transported from the blood to the tissues, it is essential that it is dissolved. Being insoluble in water, it remains in the form of a lipoprotein (ie it associates with a phospholipid and a protein). Therefore, during its production in the liver, it adheres to different combinations of phospholipids and proteins, which give rise to different types of cholesterol.
LDL, the bad cholesterol – LDL is a protein that binds to cholesterol to carry it to cells. It is considered bad precisely because of this function: if there is an increase in its rate, more cholesterol (more fat) will be routed.
Remaining in the blood vessels, it will give rise to fatty plaques that can clog the arteries (atherosclerosis). Over time, this can lead to coronary artery disease (CAD), heart attack or stroke. The higher the LDL rate, the higher the risk of cardiovascular disease.
HDL, the good cholesterol – HDL is responsible for removing excess cholesterol from tissues and arteries. It is he who carries the substance back to the liver – to then be eliminated, thus preventing its accumulation. In other words, HDL helps eliminate excess fat from blood vessels. When this protein is in low levels, there is an increased risk of heart and blood vessel problems.
The fat present in food
The foods we consume on a daily basis are made up of different nutrients and fat is one of them. Also known as a lipid, it is present in products of animal and plant origin. Thinking about health, we can say that the intake of some fats is better than others. This is because the fat we consume will have a significant impact on the type of cholesterol the body produces.
By replacing bad fats with good ones, we can help maintain healthy HDL and LDL levels.
In general, fats have a similar chemical structure: a chain of carbon atoms bonded to hydrogen atoms. What makes them different are the length and shape of the carbon chain and the number of hydrogen atoms attached to the carbon atoms. Seemingly small variations in structure, but which translate into crucial differences in form and function.
Types of fats: which ones to avoid and which ones to consume?
The main types of fat found in foods are saturated fat, unsaturated fat, and trans fat. In general, it is recommended to favor the consumption of unsaturated fats, consume saturated fats in moderation and avoid the consumption of trans fats. We understand why below.
The term “saturated” refers to the number of hydrogen atoms surrounding each carbon atom. Here, the carbon chain contains as many hydrogen atoms as possible. Usually these are solid fats at room temperature: the more solid the product, the higher the percentage of saturated fat.
Common sources of saturated fats include meats (pork, chicken, beef and lamb), dairy products (milk, cottage cheese, yogurt, butter and cheese), processed foods (bacon, salami, sausage, mortadella and ham), and various processed foods. It is also present in foods of plant origin such as coconut oil and palm oil.
A diet high in saturated fat facilitates weight gain, increases LDL levels and therefore the incidence of CAD and other complications involving the heart. For this reason, most nutrition experts recommend limiting saturated fat to less than 10% of your calories per day. The advice is to handle it and not delete it completely.
This is the type of fat found in vegetables and some fish. They are generally liquid at room temperature but solidify in the refrigerator. They differ from saturated fats in that they have fewer hydrogen atoms attached to their carbon chains.
They are the ones that are particularly linked to the benefits of the fats described above and, precisely for this reason, are nicknamed “good fats”. Unsaturated fats can be divided into two groups: polyunsaturated and monounsaturated.
Monounsaturates are found in products such as olive oil, canola oil, avocados, walnuts, almonds, cashews and peanuts. Polyunsaturated fats are represented, in particular, by omega 3 and omega 6. They are present in vegetable oils (such as sunflower, corn and soy), in fatty fish (such as salmon, tuna, anchovies and sardines) and in pumpkin, chia and flax seeds. The recommended daily amount is between 10% and 20% of the total caloric value.
While the other fats mentioned help the body function in some way, trans has no known health benefits. Therefore, there is no recommended safe consumption level. Research has shown that even small amounts can be harmful: For every 2 percent trans fat calories consumed daily, your risk of heart disease increases by about 20 percent.
Trans fats are widely used by industry. For its production, liquid oil is transformed into solid fat (a process called hydrogenation), and this is why, for example, packaged snacks, biscuits and other industrialized and ultra-processed products (such as cakes, ice cream, margarine, frozen products and fast food) are more crunchy, tasty and long-lasting. Additionally, some natural foods such as pork, beef and lamb also contain small amounts of trans fat.
Good food choices are therefore essential for the cardiovascular system. Paying attention to what goes on your plate, avoiding excesses and being aware of what the label of industrialized products says can make a big difference.
Studies suggest that a heart-healthy diet can contain up to 35 percent of total calories from fat, provided these fats are mostly unsaturated and heart health is maintained.
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