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Certainly folks have reason to have been a bit confused about just what to eat and not to eat. There are so many "diet" books that focus only on the macronutrients - fats, carbohydrates and protein. Throughout the last three decades there have been dozens of theories competing with each other and the low-fat wave, while well intentioned, wasn't completely correct.
The message ended up being that all fats were bad. Even though this was what researchers told folks at the time it became clear pretty quickly that this was not the case. At the time it was known that eating foods high in saturated fat was a health issue but we've come to know that other fats are more of a problem. Unfortunately the message in people's minds remained "fat is bad."
Some of this does come from the fact that it seems easier for folks to cope with only one of the macronutrients. Low-fat, low-carb, high protein, high fat - it seems so simple: "I'll just eat less and be fine." Eating healthy is about eating great food and not eliminating any single group of ingredients just because they contain fats (or carbs or protein).
So, just what are these fats we're talking about?
Fatty acids come in a number of forms and our bodies need them to operate. One of the main roles is to provide storage fuel for the body but they also are involved in absorption of some Vitamins, helping control inflammation as well as blood clotting. There are some fats that our bodies can produce on their own. Others that we have to consume are know as Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs).
The fatty acid molecule is made up of chains of carbon atoms. Each carbon atom in the chain has either 1 or 2 hydrogen atoms attached to it. When there are two hydrogen atoms attached to every carbon atom in the string the fat is referred to as "saturated."
That saturation is what's really the important thing. We know that they way in which fats are saturated (or not) is the what will have the most effect on your health (both for better and for worse).
So it's pretty easy actually. Fat is OK. Saturated fats and trans-fats are those that you want to eat less of (more on them next week). Fats that are unsaturated (having fewer hydrogen atoms) are better and the EFAs are those you want as part of your diet (more on those in two weeks).
Fats do have more calories per gram than carbohydrates or protein (9 grams for fat and 4 for the others). Being careful with the amount of fat you consume can make a big difference in the number of calories you eat but don't get obsessed with that. The most important thing about eating healthy is not only the number of calories – it's the quality of the calories you choose. Eating great quality fats means eating great quality calories.
Eat well, eat healthy, enjoy life!
Timothy S. Harlan, M.D.
October 27, 2008