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What is Fat?

Different Kinds of Fat and How they Relate to Your Health


Updated April 14, 2014

Dietary Fats

Examples of saturated, unsaturated and monosaturated fat

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Much of the fitness world is afraid of fat, yet there is often little understanding of what fat is or how it fits into a healthy lifestyle. In this introduction to dietary fat, we are going to answer the question, What is fat?, explain unhealthy and healthy fats, look at how fat calories put excess fat our bodies, and, yes, reveal the benefits of fat.

Dietary fats, provided they aren't contaminated by the toxins fats can store, have many have benefits -- except trans-fats which have no benefits to health at all.

  • Benefits of Fats:
  • Slow digestion
  • Make you feel full
  • Slow absorption of carbohydrates in the intestine
  • Hormone production and balance
  • Improve mood
  • Absorb fat soluble vitamins - A, D, E, K
  • Keep you oiled -- hair, skin, joints, brain
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Emulsify (breakdown and move) fats
  • Brain health
  • Source of energy

Of course there are different kinds of fats and some are more healthful than others. To understand that, let us do a very quick fat-science lesson. Don't worry, it's easy and you will be able to make better choices about the fats you buy and put in your mouth if you get a few key concepts.

What is Fat?
Dietary fats are divided into two categories, the generally unhealthy saturated fats and healthy unsaturated fats. Both are built with fatty acids. What makes them saturated or not has to do with whether or not all the places for a hydrogen atom in their structure are filled or not. Saturated are full. Unsaturated are not.

Before we get into the two kinds of dietary fat and which foods have them, there is another fat term you might be wondering about: essential fatty acids.

Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) - the Building Blocks
Saturated and unsaturated fats are built with molecules that are made of 3 fatty acids (hence the term triglycerides) and a glycerol molecule. The fatty acids your body cannot make for itself are called essential fatty acids. The omega-3 fatty acids you may have heard are so healthful are in that category. Those, along with omega-6 fatty acids, must be taken in through diet. The problem is that American diets are usually overly abundant in omega-6 and lacking in Omega-3 fatty acids, which is why people are currently urged to include omega-3 sources in their diets such as cold water fish, flax, green leafy vegetables, and nuts or use omega-3 supplements.
For details on fat structure, please see Saturated and Unsaturated - the Unhealthy and Healthy Fats

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