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Everything You Need to Know


Updated March 01, 2010

Fats, or lipids, are a class of foods that have gained much attention over the last several years. The general assumption is that all fats are bad or unhealthy, but this is not true. Fats from the right sources are an integral part of a healthy diet. Fats contribute a significant amount of energy to our food. In the appropriate quantities and types, fats will provide much of the energy needed to get us through the day. Additionally, they support and cushion our internal organs, protecting them from harm. Fats are also responsible for regulating body temperature, insulating us from the cold. Finally, they are necessary for the proper absorption of some integral vitamins, namely A, D, E and K.

Fats are composed of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms linked together in very specific patterns. It is the different combinations of these atoms that create the difference in types of fats, such as saturated, unsaturated, hydrogenated and trans fats. Saturated fats have the maximum amount of hydrogen atoms that can fit within the lipid molecule. These are typically fats from animal products, though some oils such as palm and coconut. Unsaturated fats do not have the maximum amount of hydrogen atoms, but instead have what is known as double bonds located throughout the molecule. Each carbon atom has 4 spots that are available to bond with other atoms, such as hydrogen. There can also be multiple links between the same two atoms which take up two of those bonding spots. These are called double bonds. Most oils, except for the tropical ones listed above, are unsaturated fats.

Hydrogenated fats occur when the double bonds in an unsaturated fat are broken to allow more hydrogen atoms to bond. By changing the chemical structure in this manner, any health benefits of the original fat are lost. Additionally, adding these hydrogens may change the remaining double bonds within the molecule into what is known as trans fats. Trans fats are chemically processed fats which are found in margarine, fried foods, and processed foods.

Fats are found in almost all types of foods, from butter and oils to dairy products, meats and processed foods. Cooking methods can add significant amounts of fat as well. For example, a fried chicken cutlet may contain more fat than a trimmed, lean portion of grilled steak. It’s also important to be mindful of portion sizes. The amount of mayonnaise you might put on a sandwich may be much more then one tablespoon, the typical serving size. Current dietary guidelines from the United States Department of Health and Human Services suggest that fat should be restricted to fewer than 30% of caloric intake each day, and saturated fats should be fewer than 10%. This means that if you are taking in 2,000 calories per day, fewer then 600 calories should be from fats, and no more then 200 from saturated fats.

There are many simple ways to cut back on your fat intake. Choose lean meats and trim away extra pieces of fat. Remove the skin from chicken and turkey. By modifying how you prepare foods, you can save a lot of calories and fat. Try grilling, broiling or baking foods instead of frying. Use reduced or low-fat dairy products. Spices, herbs and lemon juice can add a lot of flavor to fish or chicken instead of fatty sauces or butter. Choose healthy fats whenever possible. For example, saute vegetables in olive oil instead of corn oil or butter. Finally, be mindful of serving sizes when using spreads, salad dressings and butter. A little creativity can go along way in helping you create tasty new recipes.


Dudek, Susan G. Nutrition Essentials for Nursing Practice 4th Edition. Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins. Philadelphia: 2001. p68-98.

Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005. United States Department of Health and Human Services. Updated February 2007. Accessed February 2008. http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines

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