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Understanding Dietary Fats

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I‘ll preface this article by saying that it’ll help
you only if you read it with an open mind to accept some of the facts that defy
the thinking that all fats are bad for us. That’s because among the many
fallacies and misconceptions that surround nutrition, there is probably no
other nutrient that generates as many myths as dietary fat. It is the most
admonished component by doctors, health ‘experts’ and mass media.

Today, the experts have brainwashed us into thinking that
all kinds of fat are bad for the health. Our conversations and concerns on fitness
are centered on words like low fat, fat-free, cholesterol-free, etc.

And, if you have the habit of reading ingredient labels on
packed food like I do, I am sure your eyes begin to glaze and your mind goes
into a whirlwind of confusion on reading terms like saturated fat and monounsaturated
fat and polyunsaturated fat.

So, wasn’t one type of fat alone enough? The result is a
dilemma about how to avoid fats and how much of what type of fat can be included
in our daily diet. Before we discuss whether fat is an evil to be avoided or
not, let’s figure out the difference between different types of fat.


The Three Types of

Dietary fat can be broken into three major groups:

  • Saturated,
  • Unsaturated, including (a) monounsaturated, and
    (b) polyunsaturated, and
  • Tran’s fatty acids.

The classification is based on the chemical structure. All
fatty acids are strings of carbon atoms enriched by hydrogen atoms. The more a
type of fat is loaded with hydrogen atoms, the more saturated the fat is.

When every carbon atom bonds with a hydrogen atom, the fatty
acid is saturated. A carbon-carbon bond is unsaturated. If one pair of carbons forms
a bond, the fatty acid is polyunsaturated. If two or more pairs of carbon atoms
form a bond, the fatty acid is monounsaturated. The difference between these
three variants of unsaturated fats is based on their composition and the ease with
which they break down in our body. Super-unsaturated fats contain omega-3 fatty
acids, polyunsaturated contains omega-6 and monounsaturated fats contain
omega-9 fatty acids.

Saturated fats come from natural sources including meat, egg
yolks, dairy products, like butter, ghee, paneer and
fish. They are also found in tropical oils, specially coconut and palm oil.
They have a high oxidation facility and are solid at room temperature.

Unsaturated vegetable oils are a 20th-century creation. They
melt at lower temperature and therefore are much more likely to be an oil or
liquid at even room temperature.

Monounsaturated fats are found in foods like nuts, seeds,
olives, groundnut oil, canola oil, mustard oil, rice bran oil, olive oil.

Polyunsaturated fats are found in vegetable oils like corn,
sunflower, soyabean and partially hydrogenated oils.

Trans-fats are industrially produced; chemically-altered
oils subjected to extremely high pressure and temperature and have a metal catalyst
added to promote the artificial hydrogenation followed by bleaching, deodorising agents.

Dalda or vanaspati ghee, margarine are rich in trans-fatty acids. They are put into
high-fat foods that are required to have a long shelf life such as snack-foods,
cookies and pre-packaged foods. They reduce HDL (the good cholesterol).

The Fat Scare

Today, we have virtually been put on a “fat scare” due to
the dietary fat being constantly demonised by many doctors,
health ‘experts’ and the media. We are made to believe that low-fat and
low-cholesterol is the panacea for all diseases. The fact, however, is that
eating an adequate supply of health dietary fats is vitally important to our overall health. For that matter, restriction of any
one micro-nutrient (protein, carbs or fat) in your diet reduces what our body needs.

Which Fats Should Be

Now that we have figured out the different types of fat, the
question arises as to which fats to be used. Certain fats, like essential fatty
acids, play a crucial role in building our health. Without a regular and sufficient
supply of essential fats, health fails, degenerative disease sets in and a
downward health spiral is guaranteed. So, we have to make fats an essential
part of diet. But, first choose between good fats and bad fats. Remember that
some fats are healthy, but others are deadly.

Bad fats are any fat or oil from any source that has been
hydrogenated, or in any way chemically altered. We buy bad fats in bottles,
cans and jars or eat them in products like bread, cookies, cakes, snack foods,
spread etc. They don’t grow on trees. They are man-made.

About good fats, a good rule of thumb to remember is that
traditional fats are good fats and good for us. Think about how people used to cook.
They used butter and ghee. Those are mostly saturated or monosaturated fats which raise HDL (the good kind of cholesterol) as well as fight viruses
and provide our bodies with essential vitamins.

Polyunsaturated fats lower HDL, specially those that are cooked. Our bodies do need
some polyunsaturated fat but the problem is that we cook food in it at a very
high temperature and consume too much of it. When heated, it causes
polyunsaturated fat to become oxidised. We should try
to get polyunsaturated fats from fish oil, flax seed oil, walnut oil and the
other sources unless eaten cold. Omega-3 and omega-6 are also unsaturated fatty
acids. They are essential fatty acids and cannot be made by the body and are
vital in the diet.

So, while choosing fats, knock out the trans-fats and not
the monounsaturated and saturated fats. This doesn’t mean that a super-high fat
diet is being recommended. The traditional populations like the Masai in Africa consume plenty of saturated fats as well as
high cholesterol foods yet they have one of the world’s lowest levels of blood
cholesterol. It is because the calories they consume are also correspondingly

So, we don’t need to be afraid of dietary fats as long as we
make healthy natural choices and stay within our daily caloric range to
maintain or lose weight.

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