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Unsaturated, saturated and trans fats

Triglycerides, cholesterol and other essential fatty acids all belong to the fat family. We mainly eat triglycerides which consist of a glycerol molecule linked with three fatty acid molecules. These triglycerides perform a number of important functions in the body but are especially good at energy storage because they have more than twice the calorific density of proteins and carbs (9 calories per gram compared with 4 calories).

Triglycerides are either broken down into smaller molecules which can be used for various body functions and energy or stored for later use as body fat (called adipose tissue). If you have too much excess fat in your diet then this can lead to a build-up of visceral fat which is fat stored within your abdominal cavity and around your organs such as the stomach, pancreas, liver and intestines. Excess visceral fat can result in a number of negative health effects such as inflammation (as we saw earlier), diabetes, heart disease, increased risk of cancer and hormonal dysfunction.

There are four types of triglycerides that humans eat which vary in their function, chemical structure and the foods that they are found in: monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated and trans fats.

  • Mono-unsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) are considered a beneficial fat because they provide nutrients for cellular activities, help lower your risk of heart disease and can reduce bad cholesterol levels (more on cholesterol shortly). MUFAs are typically found foods like in avocados, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.

  • Poly-unsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are essential fatty acids which means that the body cannot synthesize them on its own and must ingest them from food. PUFAs are needed for a range of body functions such as nerve coverings, building cell membranes, preventing blood clots, managing muscle movement, preventing inflammation and reducing bad cholesterol. There are two main classes of PUFAs (Omega-3 and Omega-6) which we will discuss later and are mainly found in oily fish and refined vegetable oils.

  • Saturated fats (SFAs) are a type of fat that contain high proportions of fatty acid molecules and are important for your immune system. However, SFAs are less healthy than the unsaturated fats and can contribute to higher levels of bad cholesterol so you need to keep your saturated fats levels to below ten percent of your total daily calories. SFAs are mainly found in animal products such as fatty meats, cheese, milk, butter, ice cream, cream and eggs.

  • Trans fats are unsaturated fats that come in natural and artificial forms and are the unhealthiest type of fat. Artificial trans fats are primarily created through a process known as hydrogenation whereby hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to make them more solid and is a common ingredient in fast food products, fried food and commercially baked products. Natural trans fats are less common but can be found in small amounts in beef and dairy. Consuming trans fats has been shown to increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, bad cholesterol and inflammation and so you should try to avoid them all together.

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