Fat is essential to your health because it supports a number of your body’s functions. Fat enables the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K to be absorbed from food and regulates cholesterol metabolism. Fat is made up of several fatty acids (containing long chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms), bonded to a glycerol. They are typically triglycerides, which have three fatty acids attached to one glycerol.
Fats are insoluble in water. They are stored in your body as reserve food, which you can use when you need it. Fats form an insulating layer that helps maintain body temperature. The myelin sheaths around your nerves contain fat that prevents the passage of nerve impulses to adjacent nerve fibers. Fats are also structural components of your cells, and their presence is required for certain enzymes and hormones.
Fat is extremely calorie-dense, with nine calories per gram, as opposed to just four calories per gram for carbohydrates and protein. It is very easy to eat more calories than you need on a fat-rich diet, even if you are consuming “healthy” fats.
Harmful dietary fats and fat-like substances promote cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and cancer. They include:
- Saturated fat, which most people get from eating animal-based foods. Saturated fats have all of the carbon atoms in their fatty acid chains bonded to hydrogen atoms. Saturated fat raises total blood cholesterol levels and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels, which can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
- Trans fat, which is rare in nature, but occurs naturally in some animal-based foods. Most trans fats are created in an industrial process called hydrogenation, which adds hydrogen to an unsaturated fat, resulting in a fat that is solid at room temperature. Hydrogenation increases the shelf life of processed foods, so it’s good for corporate profits, but it’s bad for your health. Trans fats can increase unhealthy LDL cholesterol and lower healthy high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, which are associated with inflammation and can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. Trans fats may cause comparatively more weight gain than other fats, especially in the abdominal area, the most risky place to store extra fat. Trans fats are plentiful in margarine, spreads and dips, baked goods, crackers, chips, processed foods, and fried foods, so avoid buying those foods. Either stop eating these foods, or make them at home so you know they’re healthy. No amount of trans fat is healthy, so eliminate them from your diet.
- Cholesterol, which is a waxy, fat-like substance. Cholesterol helps build your body’s cells and produces certain hormones, among other functions. But your body manufactures enough cholesterol to meet its needs: your need for dietary cholesterol is exactly zero. Plant-based foods contain zero cholesterol. Animal-based foods contain cholesterol, which can increase your unhealthy LDL cholesterol level, along with your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Eating healthy fats lowers the risks of cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes, and improves your chances of living a healthful life. It’s best to consume healthy fat in its natural form: raw nuts, avocado, olives, raw seeds, or fresh coconut. Refining fats by turning them into oils, greatly reduces their health-promoting qualities and vastly increases their calorie density. It’s easier to drizzle too much olive oil over a salad than it is to eat the olives whole. Pure nut butters are good, but they are high in calories. Oils, when heated, form free radicals that can damage to the cells in our bodies, causing premature aging and irregular cell growth. The two main types of helpful dietary fat are:
- Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), which are in a variety of foods. Monounsaturated fats have one carbon atom double-bonded to hydrogen atoms, and polyunsaturated fats have many carbon atoms double-bonded, so their molecules have relatively fewer hydrogen atoms than a saturated fatty acid of the same length. Eating foods rich in MUFAs improves blood cholesterol levels, which can decrease your risk of heart disease. MUFAs may also benefit insulin levels and blood sugar control, which can be especially helpful if you have type 2 diabetes. Healthy sources of monosaturated fat include avocados, nuts, and seeds.
- Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), which are found mostly in plant-based foods. PUFAs help your body to maintain the membranes of all cells, and they help it to make prostaglandins, which regulate many body processes, including inflammation and blood clotting. Eating foods rich in PUFAs improves blood cholesterol levels, which can decrease your risk of heart disease. PUFAs may also help decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes. Depending on the location of the double-bond in the fatty acid chain, PUFAs can be classified as omega-3 or omega-6 fatty acids. Most fatty acids are non-essential, meaning that your body can produce them as needed, generally from other fatty acids. However, your body cannot make at least two PUFAs: linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid, and alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid found in plants. These are called essential fatty acids and you must include them in your diet. Omega-6 fatty acids, including linoleic acid, which your body converts into gamma linolenic acid (GLA), provide another natural defense against such diseases as cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, eczema, psoriasis, diabetic neuropathy and premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Omega-3 fatty acids may decrease the risk of coronary artery disease, protect against irregular heartbeats, and help lower blood pressure levels. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is a short-chain omega-3 fatty acid, which is found in many vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and fruits. There are relatively large amounts in soy, walnuts, flax seeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, mustard seeds, and chia seeds. Brazil nuts and wheat germ also contain significant amounts. It’s also found in green leafy vegetables, grains, and spirulina. Your body cannot make its own ALA, so you need to eat some of these foods each day. Your body can convert ALA to EPA (eiocosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) is found in very small amounts in microalgae, leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, and walnuts. EPA lowers your risk of cardiovascular disease. Some EPA is converted into series 3 eicosanoids which can reduce blood clotting, inflammation, blood pressure, and cholesterol. Your body can produce EPA out of ALA and out of DHA. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is found in very small amounts in spirulina, leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, and walnuts. It is a major component of the gray matter of the brain, and also found in the retina, testes, sperm, and cell membranes. DHA is important for proper nerve and brain development and function. Your body can convert EPA into DHA; however, a high intake of linoleic acid may suppress your body’s ability to convert alpha-linolenic acid to DHA. Avoid refined oils, especially sunflower, safflower, and corn oil, and use tiny amounts of oils containing alpha-linolenic acid such as soy and walnut oils, which will assist your body in making more DHA.
For promoting cardiovascular health, ensuring proper growth and development, or relieving pain, a vegan diet rich in whole fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes will give you all the healthy fats you need.
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