Fats have received a bad reputation in the recent past, which caused the advent of the “fat free” era. Almost everything comes in a fat-free variety—even cooking oils! And everything “fat free” is considered healthy.
Is that really the case? Why are fats bad for us? Should we completely cut out fat from our diet?  If not, what should our choices be?

Answering these important questions, let us start with:

Why is fat important?

Fat is a vital nutrient and is critical for good health. Fats provide essential fatty acids, which are not made by our body and must be obtained from food. Some of these fatty acids are very important for controlling inflammation, blood clotting, and brain development.

Fats are also an important energy source. When the body has used up the calories from carbohydrates, which occurs after the first 20 minutes of exercise, it begins to depend on the calories from fat. Healthy skin and hair are maintained by fat. Fat also helps the body absorb and transport vitamins A, D, E, and K through the bloodstream. However, fat provides nine calories per gram, more than twice the amount provided by carbohydrates or protein.

Different types of fats

Fats can be broadly categorized as saturated and unsaturated fats.

Saturated fats are found mainly in animal and animal derived products such as butter, ghee, whole milk and its derivatives, and fatty meats. They are also found in some tropical oils—coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils. Common foods in South Asian cuisine that are high in saturated fat are ghee, whole milk/yogurt, coconut, darker meats, and fried foods. Excess consumption of saturated fats has been linked to increased levels of bad (LDL) cholesterol thereby increasing your risk for cardiovascular disease. The current recommendation by the American Heart Association is to limit saturated fat to no more than 10 percent of your total fat intake. Choose low-fat alternatives whenever possible and pay attention to saturated fat intake.

Trans fats/partially hydrogenated fats: Liquid oils are partially hydrogenated to improve consistency and widely used in commercial food preparations. This process chemically alters the oil increasing its trans fat content. Trans fat increases bad (LDL) cholesterol and lowers good (HDL) cholesterol, thereby increasing your risk of heart disease. Some Indian foods high in trans fats are fried foods—especially store bought snacks, cookies, biscuits, or other baked goods containing shortening.

Unsaturated fats are further classified as mono- and polyunsaturated fats. These fats are known to increase your good cholesterol and lower your total cholesterol and hence are cardio-protective. However, unsaturated fats like any other type of fat are high in calories, so you still need to eat them in moderation. Foods such as olives, avocados, olive oil, canola oil, and nuts such as almonds and walnuts are good sources of monounsaturated fats.

Omega-3 fatty acids are a form of polyunsaturated fat that the body derives from food. Omega-3s (and omega-6s) are known as essential fatty acids (EFAs) because they are important for good health. Our body cannot make these fatty acids so omega-3s must be obtained from food. Omega-3 fatty acids have been known to lower triglycerides and your cholesterol levels. Omega 3 fatty acids can be obtained from foods such as cold-water fish, flaxseeds, and flax seed oil, and dark-green leafy vegetables.

Diet dos and don’ts:

• Limit animal products such as eggs, cheeses, whole milk/yogurt, ghee, heavy cream and darker meats. Choose a low-fat alternative.• Even if the label lists trans fats at 0 gm, read the list of ingredients and look for “partially hydrogenated.” These foods contain trans fat, so limit your portions.• Limit fried foods, processed foods, and commercially prepared baked goods such as namkeens, samosas, donuts, cookies, biscuits, cream biscuits, crackers, cakes, and so on.• Limit the use of coconut and coconut oil.

• Choose lean meats and protein-rich foods such as lentils, beans, and bean sprouts.• Eat foods that are naturally low in fat such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.• Choose canola oil, olive oil, and foods containing monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids. However, limit your total fat intake to no more than 20-30 percent of your total caloric intake.

• Instead of butter or jams on your toast, choose almond butter or peanut butter.

Vijaya Deo is the founder of www.healthykhana.org. She has a master’s in nutritional science and works as clinical educator with Berkeley Heart Lab, and nutritionist at South Asian Heart Center. For more informaiton on fats, go to www.healthykhana.org.

Medical disclaimer: This article is provided for educational and informational purposes only and the information provided should not be used for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease. Please consult with your doctor, licensed physician or other qualified health provider for personal medical advice and medical conditions.