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Fats in your food

by Iris Chen MD

Saturated fats, unsaturated fats and trans fats. The names relate to the chemical structure between the carbon and hydrogen bonds and these small differences can have a dramatic impact on your health. Consumption of trans fats are thought to be a major cause of heart disease and it is a good idea to minimize them in your diet, alongside saturated fats. Here we detail these three categories of food-based fats, where they came from and how to avoid them.

Food and diet go a long way in protecting the heart and the circulatory system and absence of some vitamins and minerals also affects muscle stimulation and circulation. The absence of required fats and antioxidants raise the bad cholesterol or the triglycerides levels and radically reduce good cholesterol levels and eating the wrong fats has been seen to be one of the major causes of heart disease.

There are three categories of food-based fats that we are going to discuss here. These are saturated, unsaturated and the trans-fatty acids or "trans fats".

Saturated Fats

Animal fats from meat, poultry, and dairy products are all saturated. Some vegetable oils are also saturated including palm and coconut oils. Saturated fats are the fats to avoid. These types of fats stimulate the body to produce more cholesterol and can raise the level of LDL cholesterol in the bloodstream, a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Of all the fats, saturated fat is the most potent determinant of blood cholesterol levels. In general, it is wise to minimize the consumption of this type of fat in the diet.

Unsaturated Fats

Usually saturated fats are found in meats and other animal-based foods. Though they are not absolutely healthy, they can be tolerated in small amounts. Unsaturated fats occur naturally in vegetable-based oils and some seafood. Usually unsaturated fats are healthy, because they do not get deposited in the body and help reduce the levels of LDL or bad cholesterol found in saturated fats.

Trans Fats

Fats that have undergone the hydrogenation process are labeled as trans fats. This is artificially produced fat, in which vegetable oil is converted into a form that is easier to handle through hydrogenation. Margarine is an example of a product that contains trans fat. These fats have been labeled as unhealthy. They are partially hydrogenated so that they do not become solid and can be used easily. We used to think that unsaturated fats were better than saturated but unfortunately, it has been discovered that trans fats get deposited in the blood vessels.

Over the years, trans fats have replaced natural solid fats in many areas. Margarine has replaced butter and some partially hydrogenated fats have become the preferred cooking medium. This has happened especially in the fast food industry. Most snack foods, fried foods, baked goods, and other processed foods are made in vegetable shortenings and margarines. This has contributed to the problems with coronary health we see in developed societies.

Manufacturers use it because of cost savings and a long shelf life. A product made from saturated fat or vegetable oil would spoil faster than one made with hydrogenated oil. Some clinical studies point out the possible connection of trans fats with obesity, diabetes and heart diseases, among other problems. Research has indicated that replacing a mere 2% of trans fats with healthy fats would decrease a person's risk of heart disease by one-third.

Identifying Fats in your Diet

Due to the implications for heart disease and heart attacks, it has recently become a FDA requirement of manufacturers to list the trans fat content on their products, alongside saturated and unsaturated fats. This has made is easier to track your consumption but be aware - by far the greatest concentration of trans fats is in fast food!

1. Willet et al, Lancet 1993; 341:581-5

About the Author

Iris is a Canadian trained physician who has been involved in the nutritional world for over 15 years and has a major interest in traditional Chinese medicine. Iris currently works as a medical advisor to Mitamins, the custom made online supplements company.

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