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Which fats are most beneficial for health? (Part 1)

The types of fats we eat are of extreme importance. Fats provide a concentrated source of energy in the diet, and they also provide the building blocks for cell membranes and a variety of hormones.

Fats eaten in a meal slow down nutrient absorption, making us feel fuller for longer. They are also carriers for important fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E and K. Dietary fats are needed for the conversion of carotene to Vitamin A, for mineral absorption and for many other important functions.

Most people, especially growing children, could benefit from more fat in the diet rather than less. But the fats we eat must be chosen with care. This article explains the different types of fats, and which fats are most beneficial for health.

The types of fats are:

Saturated: saturated fats are highly stable, because their chemical structure consists of all atom bonds being complete and are therefore packed tightly together. This means that they do not normally go rancid, even when heated, and they are solid at room temperature. Saturated fats are found in animal fats like butter, in tropical oils like coconut oil, and the body also makes them from carbohydrates.

Monounsaturated: these fats contain a double-bond in their chemical structure and lack two hydrogen atoms, so they do not pack together as easily as saturated fats, and therefore tend to be liquid at room temperature. Like saturated fats, however, they are relatively stable and do not go rancid easily so can be used in cooking. The body makes monounsaturated fatty acids from saturated fatty acids and uses them in many ways. The main one found in our food is oleic acid, the main component of olive oil.

Polyunsaturated: these fats have two or more double bonds and therefore lack at least four hydrogen atoms. This makes these oils highly reactive and they turn rancid easily. They remain liquid, even when refrigerated. The two polyunsaturated fatty acids found most frequently in our foods are omega-6 and omega-3. The body cannot make these fatty acids and hence they are called 'essential'. They must be obtained from the food we eat.

All fats and oils are a combination of these three types of fatty acids.

Polyunsaturated fats are the fats to cut down on. Excess consumption of refined polyunsaturated oils has been shown to contribute to a large number of diseases, including heart disease and cancer, digestive and immune system disorders, damage to organs and weight gain.

One reason that polyunsaturates cause so many health problems is that they tend to become oxidized or rancid when heated, as in cooking and processing. When ingested, they cause free radicals to attack cell membranes and red blood cells in the body, causing tissue, blood vessel and skin damage that are the precursor to disease.

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