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Five Things to Know About Fats

  • Fat is the most concentrated source of energy found in food. Any type of fat provides nine calories per gram.
  • Fat is essential for a woman to maintain healthy reproductive function.
  • Many products contain different types of fat in various proportions.
  • Heat, light and oxygen destroy essential fatty acids.
  • We need some fat in our diet to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.

What Is Fat?

Fat, like protein and carbohydrate, is an essential nutrient. It is a very concentrated source of energy, providing nine calories per gram.

The basic building blocks of fats are fatty acids. Your body requires about twenty different fatty acids to function normally and it can make all but two of them from other food macronutrients. These two are called "essential fatty acids" – known as Omega 3 and Omega 6. As their name suggests, the essential fatty acids must be present in your diet.

All dietary fats are a combination of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. The difference between them will be explained below.

Types of Fat

You will encounter these terms when diet is discussed: saturated fat, monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, omega-3 fatty acid, omega-6 fatty acid, trans fat.

For many of us, the word "fat" has negative connotations. However, not all fat types are equally bad. Whether or not a particular fat type is harmful is related to a chemical property called saturation. Put briefly, saturated fat molecules pile up and stick to each other and may clog up your arteries, which is bad. Saturated fats are generally solid at room temperature. Unsaturated fat molecules flow easily through the arteries, which is good. They are often liquid oils at room temperature.

Saturated Fat (SATFA)

What is it like?

It is easy to recognize saturated fat because it is solid or almost solid at room temperature. An example is the white part in a slice of bacon.


Saturated fat is mainly found in foods of animal origin, such as red meat trimmings, poultry skin, whole milk, cream, butter, cheese, lard and solid shortenings. Vegetable oils can also be saturated. Examples of saturated vegetable fats are coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils.

Many processed foods such as cakes, biscuits, pastries and crisps also contain saturated fats.

What does it do?

It tends to raise blood cholesterol, especially LDL ("unhealthy" or "bad") cholesterol. This, in turn, can lead to heart disease.

Monounsaturated Fat (MUFA)

What is it like?

It is usually an oily liquid at room temperature.


MUFA can be found in olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, sesame oil, avocados, olives, almonds, peanut butter, peanuts and other nuts and seeds.

What does it do?

This kind of fat is high in Vitamin E and provides the essential fatty acids necessary for healthy skin and the development of body cells. It also helps lower total blood cholesterol without lowering HDL ("healthy" or "good") cholesterol. This type of fat is the more healthy choice, because eating it in moderation will not add to your cancer or heart disease risk.

When you add fat to foods during cooking, it is better to use unsaturated vegetable oils. Olive oil is the healthiest because it is high in monounsaturated fat and is favored over corn and sunflower oils, which contain more polyunsaturated fat.

Polyunsaturated Fat (PUFA)

What is it like?

It is usually an oily liquid at room temperature.


PUFA can be found in fish oil, soybean oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil, safflower oil and sunflower oil.

What does it do?

Helps lower total blood cholesterol, but may also lower HDL ("healthy" or "good") cholesterol levels.

It is less healthy than monounsaturated fats, although within the polyunsaturated fats group there are two very important essential fatty acids (EFAs):

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

  • EFAs are found in abundance in fish and seafood as well as in linseed or flax oil, hemp oil, soybean oil, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and dark green vegetables.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for the optimal function of every cell in our bodies.
  • The lack of these acids in our food can lead to heart disease and depression.

Omega-6 Fatty Acids

  • These are found in unrefined sunflower, safflower, corn, maize, cottonseed and sesame oils.
  • These essential fatty acids reduce blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels, and help to maintain the proper elasticity of blood vessels. It is generally agreed that Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids are needed in a ratio of 1:1. An imbalance will result in impaired absorption of Omega-3 fatty acids. In the average diet the intake of Omega-6 is much higher than Omega-3, because Omega-6 is so much more prevalent in frequently eaten vegetable oils.

Trans Fats

Trans fat is artificially created when liquid oils are "partially hydrogenated". They become less greasy-tasting, more solid, and their shelf life is increased. This may sound good, but due to the altered chemical structure, trans fats behave more like saturated fats. They contribute to elevated (LDL) or "bad" cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease.

Trans fat is a common ingredient in commercial baked products such as crackers, cookies and cakes. It is also often used to deep fry foods such as doughnuts and French fries. Shortenings and some margarines are also high in trans fat. Look for the words "partially hydrogenated" in the list of ingredients to see if the product contains trans fat.

How to Eat the Right Amount of the Right Fats

  • Use olive or canola oil for cooking.
  • Prepare oily fish, such as salmon and mackerel, instead of meat once or twice each week.
  • Use non-stick pans for stir-frying and use a little broth or juice instead of fat to prevent sticking.
  • Try cooking methods that don't require fat, such as grilling, baking, steaming or microwaving.
  • If a recipe requires fat as an ingredient then try using half the amount recommended.
  • Use lemon juice, rice vinegar, or a yogurt-based dressing instead of mayonnaise or sour cream dressing.
  • Chill meat or poultry broth until the fat becomes solid and skim it off with a spoon before using the broth.
  • Choose dairy products with a lower percentage of fat, such as semi-skimmed milk.
  • Avoid high fat snacks such as crisps or biscuits. Pretzels, popcorn and nuts are healthier alternatives.
  • Eat bread without butter or margarine.
  • Take the skin off chicken.

Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats have few adverse effects on blood cholesterol levels, but you still need to consume all fats in moderation because of their high energy content. Eating large amounts of any fat adds excess calories. Also, make sure that fatty foods don't replace more nutritious options, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes or whole grains.

The Healthy Eating Pyramid Protein
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