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[This is another in our series on the How and Why of Eating Healthy.]
There's good reason to be confused about just what to eat and what not to eat. So many "diet" books focus only on the macronutrients: fats, carbohydrates and protein and over the last three decades there have been dozens of competing theories.,
The low-fat wave, while well intentioned, wasn’t completely correct. The message ended up being that all fats were bad. Even though researchers told us to not eat fat, it became clear pretty quickly that they had made a mistake. 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: "All fat is bad."
Some of the problem arises 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. One of their main roles is to provide storage fuel for the body, but they also are involved in absorption of some vitamins, helping to control inflammation and also in blood clotting. There are some fats that our bodies can produce on their own. Others that we have to consume are known 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 the important thing. We know that the type of saturated is what will have the most effect on your health (both for better and for worse).
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 later). Fats that are unsaturated (having fewer hydrogen atoms) are better for you and the EFAs are those you want as part of your diet (more on those later).
Fats do have more calories per gram than carbohydrates or protein (9 grams for fat and 4 each for protein and carbs). 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 the number of calories and also 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.
July 27, 2009
Last updated: 07/20/09