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Fats, such a small word to be linked with so much apprehension and fear. All thanks to the side effects of excess fat consumption. Fats are linked to diseases such as stroke, heart attack and fatty liver. While most of this is true in case of excessive fat consumption, fats are not the supposed foe to your health as is portrayed, instead, they are as important for your body metabolism as any other nutrient. For once, fats are the major form in which your body stores energy and nutrition. It has the highest calorific value per gram than carbs or proteins and then it is essential in the formation and function of certain hormones and vitamins. In the absence of fats, your body suffers as much as it would if you consume excess fats.

Interestingly, eating an excess of healthy fats could also cause you to be obese. It is fats you are eating after all. There is definitely no loophole in this maze.

The best way is consuming less amount of fats or taking them in moderation.

Since there are so many types of fats, how do you decide what kind of fats is good for health and what fat should be avoided?

You’ll read more about it in this article along with the benefits of fats on your health and the food sources you can get your dietary fat from.

  1. Types of fats
  2. Recommended daily allowance of fats
  3. Fatty foods: healthy fats to eat
  4. What to avoid: unhealthy fats
  5. Fats benefits
  6. Fats side effects

Though most of the health conscious people of the 21st century are well aware of the classification of fats, many people are still unaware of the fact that they have different types of fats at their disposal and the body needs various dietary fats in different amounts. This section explains just how and where you can get your dietary fats from and what all types of fats are there.

  1. Trans fat
  2. Saturated fats
  3. Unsaturated fats: polyunsaturated and monounsaturated

Trans fat

Trans fats are hydrogenated fats that are solid at room temperature and have a longer shelf life. However, they can be classified into two types:

  • Natural trans fats: These are found in milk and meat products and are found in the gut of animals.
  • Artificial trans fats: These are produced by partially hydrogenating other fats in an industrial setting. Trans fats are used to prepare crispy and flaky pies and crackers or any kind of processed food.

Trans fats are used for deep frying as they can tolerate reheating. Other foods that contain trans fats include cookies, chips, doughnuts, margarine, sandwiches and salad dressings.

Saturated fats

Saturated fats are yet another type of fats that raise concerns. Just like trans fats, this is also solid at room temperature and is known as solid fat. Unlike trans fats, saturated fats are naturally present and are obtained from animal-based products, especially meat. This includes lamb and chicken (with skin). Saturated fat is also present in milk, cheese, butter and lard and oils like coconut oil and palm oil.

Apart from the oils, most saturated and trans fats increase the level of low density (bad) cholesterol) in your body, which is directly linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Unsaturated fats: polyunsaturated and monounsaturated

Unsaturated fats or fatty acids are a much better alternative to saturated fats, as confirmed by research evidence. Even though the harms of saturated fats and the benefits of unsaturated fats is yet disputed, the latter is more preferred.

Unlike saturated and trans fats, unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature but on cooling, they turn to solid. Depending on the chemical structure, there are two types of unsaturated fats:

  • Monounsaturated fats: examples include olive oil, safflower oil and peanut oil
  • Polyunsaturated fats: examples include olive oil, sunflower oil, corn oil and flax oil. Polyunsaturated fats include omega-3 and omega-6 fats and are good for the heart and health.

The recommended daily allowance for fats depends on the age, gender and physical and physiological condition. The daily dose also varies depending on the type of fat. So, it varies from person to person. To know the right dosage of dietary fats as per your body type, it is best to check in with a nutritionist. The Indian RDA recommends a balanced diet should contain about 20 to 30% of fats which includes about 200 mg of PUFA per day. Following is a table for fat recommendation according to the Indian Council of Medical Research.

Age and gender Min. total fat (%) Fats from foods (non-visible fats) (%) Fats from oils (visible fats)
% energy g/p/d^
Up to 6 months 40-60 All fat from mother's milk
7 months to 2 year 35 10 25 25
3 to 6 year 25 10 15 25
7 to 9 year 25 10 15 30
Boys (10-18 year) 25 10 15 35-50*
Girls (10-18 year) 25 10 15 35-45*
Adult men 20 10 10 25-40**
Adult women 20 10 10 20-30**
Pregnancy and lactation 20 10 10 30

^grams per person per day

 *varies depending on the age.

**varies depending on physical activity.

With all the information and confusion about the use and warnings about fats, it becomes quite difficult to decide what fats are healthy and what foods to eat to attain your daily fat requirements without putting your health at a risk. Well, here is a short list, that might answer your query.

  • Opt for vegetable oils like corn oil, soybean oil rice bran oil and sunflower oil and cut down on solid fats like butter and shortenings while cooking.
  • Lean Meat
  • Salty fish and shellfish
  • Nuts like almonds, walnuts, and cashews.
  • Egg whites
  • If you want to add dairy to your diet, look for low-fat milk, yoghurt and cheese.
  • Take more fruits like avocado
  • Flax seeds
  • Olive oil
  • Dark chocolate
  • Beans and lentils
  • Whole grains
  • Processed food and foods with high saturated fat. This includes cakes, pastries, biscuits, crackers.
  • Meat like liver, pork and lamb. Chicken with skin, salami
  • Whole milk or milk products.
  • Lard and margarine
  • Palm oil and coconut oil
  • Egg yolk and whole egg
  • Thick or creamy sauces

Apart from the above-mentioned lists, it is imperative to be mindful of the ingredients while buying any packed food, so you can be aware of what all you are consuming.

Fats may be demonised as the monsters for your health, but they do have some crucial functions that aid in keeping your body fit and free from diseases. Let us have a look at how fats are good for your health.

  1. Fats for heart
  2. Fats for skin
  3. Fats effect on weight loss
  4. Fats for the brain
  5. Other benefits of fats

Fats for heart

When it comes to the heart, different types of fats have different effects. Trans fats, without doubt, are considered to be the worst for health the heart but the negative effect of saturated fats on the cardiovascular system still remains doubtful. Consuming enough unsaturated fats aid in reducing low density (bad) cholesterol and increasing the amount of high density (good) cholesterol, in the body. This, in turn, reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases like atherosclerosis,  heart attack and stroke. Though, it is important to keep the total dietary intake to moderate and not exceed your daily requirements.

(Read more: Heart diseases types and treatment)

Fats for skin

Did you know the fats you eat also have an impact on your skin. Extensive research has been done on the effects of fats on the skin and most evidence points to the fact that vegetable-based fats like coconut oil, palm oil, soybean oil, almond oil, jojoba oil etc work actively to maintain the skin barriers, which are important to avoid the entry of harmful substances and infectious microbes into the deeper layers of the skin.

As anti-inflammatory and antioxidants, they alleviate the excessive oxidative stress on your skin, thereby reducing the first signs of ageing like dark spots, dry and dead skin and wrinkles later on. This further enhances wound healing and reduction in the risk of skin problems like dermatitis.

So, replace your saturated fats based cooking oils and solid fats with healthier vegetable oils and keep your skin younger.

Fats effect on weight loss

One of the most obvious effects of a high-fat diet is obesity. Since fats provide a lot of energy, our body tends to store it. To get rid of the negative effects of fat on weight, most people tend to flinch away from this nutrient, losing their beneficial properties too. Instead of cutting away fats completely, it is the best to resort to a low-fat diet consisting of more unsaturated fats. Studies indicate that a moderate fat diet is better than a low-fat diet when it comes to controlling weight.

According to a clinical study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, weight gain is mostly caused when the energy uptake is higher than the expenditure. So, bringing this energy in balance would help in managing weight issues irrespective of which nutrient is taken as a primary source. If you are a weight conscious person you might already know about the keto diet, a high-fat diet that is used so commonly for weight loss.

Despite this, it is important to take all the nutrients in balanced proportions. This is because every nutrient has its own function in the body and a deficiency would cause some sort of health problem.

(Read more: Diet chart for weight loss)

Fats for the brain

Lipids and fats come right after water when we talk about brain structure. They are one of the major structural components of neurons (brain cells). Imbalance in the lipid composition of brain has been found to have a direct link to various disorders such as depression and schizophrenia. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids have a special role in maintaining cognition and memory. In fact, they are one of the major lipids required for brain development in infants.

It is speculated that dietary fats have an impact on the cell membrane of neurons, through which they can affect the uptake and response of brain cells to neurotransmitters and other proteins. Furthermore, as a major component of eicosanoids, fats enable cell to cell communication and they have been suggested to have some impact on the nuclear and DNA level too. It would not be wrong to say that brain function would suffer severely in the absence or lack of fats.

(Read more: How to increase brain power)

Other benefits of fats

Now you know some of the important functions and benefits of fats in various body organs, but, that is not where this list ends. Here are some of the other functions of fats in the body:

  • Fats provide the highest energy per 100 g. This is more than two times the energy provided by carbohydrates and proteins. Quite obviously, it is the primary source of energy for the body. Studies suggest that our muscles start burning fats for energy during rigorous training instead of carbohydrates.
  • Vitamin A, D, E and K need fats for their absorption from the intestines. All of these nutrients play important roles in various body functions, vitamin A is good for eyes and hairs, while vitamin E protects you from the woes of premature ageing. Similarly, vitamin D keeps your bones and teeth healthy and vitamin K helps in blood clotting. Absence or low levels of fats would lead to a reduction in all of these vitamins in the body, ultimately affecting all body functions.
  • Fats form the structural components of various hormones and enzymes including the sex hormones (testosterone and oestrogen) and the stress hormone cortisol.
  • Fats are also responsible for insulating your body, temperature regulation and maintaining homeostasis.
  • Studies indicate that consuming a diet high in fats has a negative effect on lung inflammation and asthma due to an increase in the number of prostaglandins and Ig E antibodies.
  • An excessive amount of fats increases the risk of high cholesterol and plaque deposition in the arteries or atherosclerosis. This, in turn, leads to increased chances of a heart attack or stroke.
  • High-fat diet has been claimed to increase the risk of certain types of cancer. However, more studies are needed to confirm this.
  • Since a lot of fat is stored inside your liver, it can lead to fatty liver disease.
  • According to a recent study, all that extra fat is not good for your bones either since it has been found to be associated with a higher risk of osteoporosis.
  • Excessive fats can also increase testosterone which creates a hormonal imbalance in female body, leading to problems like PCOS. Taking more saturated fats has been reported to increase the risk of PCOS.
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