Fat is an essential source of energy and fatty acids. It builds nerve sheaths and cell membranes and is necessary for muscle movement, blood clotting, reducing inflammation. However, not all fats are created equal. Eating "bad" fats can cause heart problems, for example. Many studies link saturated fat to cholesterol levels, though it is important to remember that cholesterol in itself is not good or bad. Understanding saturated fats can help people make informed and healthful changes to their diets.
All fats consist of a chain of carbon atoms bonded to hydrogen atoms. The length of the chain and number of hydrogen atoms defines the types of fat and whether they are ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Saturated fats do not have double bonds between the individual carbon atoms. The fat is ‘saturated’ with hydrogen molecules, and these fats are solid at room temperature. Monounsaturated fats only have one carbon-to-carbon double bond. This means they have fewer hydrogen atoms than saturated fats, a structure that keeps them liquid at room temperature. Polyunsaturated fats have two or more double bonds between carbon atoms.
Animal-based sources of saturated fat include fatty cuts of beef, lamb, pork or poultry with skin. Processed meats like sausages and salami also contain high quantities saturated fats. Dairy products like butter, cheese, cream, and ghee also include saturated fats. You may be surprised to know that they are also found in some vegetable oils, like palm oil and coconut oil. Many manufactured and packaged foods such as pastries, pies, sausage rolls, cakes, biscuits, pizzas and fatty snack foods contain high quantities of saturated fats. Deep fried takeaway foods are also full of saturated fats.
The daily allowance for saturated fat varies according to gender. The American Heart Foundation recommends those who eat 2,000 calories a day, to consume no more than 120 of them from saturated fat. This is about 6% of your total calories or about 13 grams per day. According to the NHS, 50g of the 70g of fats an adult should eat in a day should be made up of unsaturated fats, and only 20g should be saturated fats. Read labels to find out how much-saturated fat is in the foods you’re consuming.
It is not practical to eliminate saturated fat entirely because it may inevitably be present in small amounts in some foods. You can, instead, try to eat foods containing saturated fats less often. You can also go for lower fat versions of the foods that contain saturated fats such as lean meat and poultry without skin. It’s also best to avoid full-fat dairy products such as full cream milk, cheese, and yogurt. Change to low-fat dairy products like low-fat milk, cheese, and yogurt. Consider using a vegetable oil-based spread rather than butter.
As already mentioned, monounsaturated fat has one double bond in the fatty acid chain. The most common monounsaturated fat found in food is oleic acid. It occurs naturally in oils, especially olive oil. Other good sources of monounsaturated fats are canola oil, olive oil, peanut oil, avocados, almonds, peanuts, and cashews. A study during the 1960s revealed that people living in the Mediterranean region had a low risk of heart disease although they ate a diet high in fat. The primary fat was not saturated fat but olive oil, a monounsaturated fat. Today many people consider the ‘Mediterranean diet’ as one of the healthiest dietary options.
Polyunsaturated fats are essential for healthy body functions. There are found in specific foods and called “essential” because the body cannot build them on its own. Polyunsaturated fats like omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids have two or more double bonds in their carbon chain. Studies have shown that eating polyunsaturated fats instead of saturated fats helps to reduce LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish such as sardines, salmon, and mackerel, walnuts and flaxseeds. Omega-6 fatty acids have also been linked to protection against heart disease and are found in vegetable oils such as soybean, walnut and sunflower oils.
Cooking methods are essential when trying to reduce the adverse effect of saturated fats. Poaching, baking, steaming, boiling and grilling meat, fish or eggs are more appropriate cooking methods as they use less fat than frying. Try roasting meat and vegetables in the oven instead of deep frying. Using vegetable oils rather than butter for frying also helps as they are a good source of unsaturated fat. Since butter comes from an animal, it is considered a source of cholesterol as well. Replacing cream with evaporated milk or double strength skim milk powder in soups, casseroles or quiches is also a way to reduce saturated fat in the diet. Before cooking, try to trim the fat off meat and use skinless chicken breasts and thighs as well.
Pizza is one of the most significant food sources of saturated fat in American diets. Croissants, pies, and pasta are just a few other prepared foods that contain saturated fats as well. Try eating oats for breakfast instead of sugary cereals and replacing white rice, bread, and pasta with wholegrain varieties. Most of your diet should be made up of fresh fruits and vegetables rather than packaged, processed foods, so keep the pasta and cereals to a quarter of your plate per meal.
Try to avoid falling into a saturated fat trap by choosing snacks like chips, cookies or candies when you get hungry in between meals. Replace them with healthy snacks like fruits, seeds, nuts and roasted vegetable chips. Hazelnuts, almonds, macadamia nuts, and walnuts are all excellent sources of unsaturated fats and make a tasty mid-morning snack. Pair them with a complex carbohydrate, such as an apple, to create a balanced snack that will keep you fuller, longer. Choose unsalted nuts, as commercially roasted ones are usually cooked in lots of oil. Another healthy snack is avocado on toast with a sprinkling of olives or a sliced apple with peanut butter and raisins.
Compared to trans-fats, saturated fat is a better option, studies suggest. Compared to refined carbohydrates such as those found in sweet breakfast cereals, they are likely to cause less damage. Trans-fats are created when vegetable oils go through a chemical process called hydrogenation that hardens the oil, which does not sound too great for your arteries. The process improves the shelf life and taste in processed foods such as cakes, pies, and biscuits. The health implications of consuming high levels of trans-fats have caused much concern and led to changes in the manufacturing processes. If ‘partially hydrogenated vegetable oil’ appears on a food label, it is best to avoid it.
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