We always hear bad things about them, but fatty acids are important nutrients, and have vital rules in our body. What is bad, actually, is to eat too many, especially of the "wrong" type.
Here's some facts...
Fats provide energy. In proportion they provide more energy, almost double, than carbs and proteins, and this is why they are important to store energy and make it available when needed.
All fats provide the same amount of energy, but it doesn't mean that they're all the same.
The different quality of fats, in fact, can have important effects on our general health and and excessive intake can lead to obesity, cardiovascular diseases and tumors.
These are some general guidelines about fats:
- Moderate fat consumption, especially those of animal origin, and use cooking methods that limit the quantity of fats added
- Choose vegetable oils when possible, especially the extra-virgin olive oil, better if not cooked
- Limit the quantity of fried foods
- Prefer lean meats, and remove visible fat
In the Right Quantity Fats are Allies, not Enemies
Fats don't just provide energy, they also increase the absorption of vitamin A, D, E and K, and of some anti-oxidants. Fats are also important for the production of some hormones like testosterone.
The effects that they have on our body can be very different though, depending on their composition of fatty acids, that can be:
Some unsaturated fats are essential for our body (omega-3 and omega-6, for example), but keep in mind that all of them are harmful if taken in excessive quantities.
This applies to everything in life, and especially in nutrition: even the best foods or nutrients cause health problem if taken in excessive quantities.
I am sure you're wondering which fatty acids are good and which ones are bad instead, so here's the answer:
Saturated = Bad
Unsaturated = Good
Limit Saturated Fatty Acids
Saturated fatty acids are typical of products of animal origin, except fish (butter, cream, cheese, dairy products, red meat etc.), and are solid at room temperature.
In products of animal origin, no matter how much saturated fats they contain, there is cholesterol.
When a diet is rich in saturated fats, cholesterol levels in the blood can become very high.
At the end of the day, just limit the consumption of saturated fats even if your body doesn't have the tendency to have high cholesterol levels.
Unsaturated Fatty Acids are Good for the Heart
Unsaturated fats can be found in abundance in vegetable oils (seeds and olive oil), nuts (and hazelnuts), olives and fish. In the right amount they can have positive effects on the heart as well as prevent some tumors.
They can be of two types, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
- Monounsaturated fats can be found in olive oil and they help decrease LDL cholesterol (the bad one) while increasing HDL cholesterol (the good one)
- Polyunsaturated fats also have positive effects on the heart, as they lower LDL cholesterol (without increasing HDL). They are found in seed oils, but also in cereals and nuts as omega-6, and fish. In particular, blue fish (like anchovies, mackerel, sardines, etc...) is rich in fatty acids omega 3, especially some omega 3, which reduce the risk of thrombosis, protecting the body against cardiovascular disease
Cholesterol is Important but Watch the Levels
Cholesterol is an important molecule that is present in our body (cells and hormones). It is so important that our body produces is on its own, besides taking it from the foods that we eat (animal fats).
High cholesterol values, though, can lead to cardiovascular diseases (heart attack, stroke), in particular when combined with other conditions such as smoking habits, sedentary lifestyle, overweight etc.
Cholesterol is carried in the blood by LDL and HDL lipoproteins.
LDL are considered bad because they carry cholesterol from the liver to the arteries, and it can deposit on the arteries walls.
HDL are instead considered good because they do the opposite job, they remove cholesterol from the arteries walls.
Cholesterol on the arteries walls mean reduced blood flow and increased blood pressure.
To prevent these diseases it is important to do regular physical activity and lose weight (they go together I guess), but more importantly to limit the intake of animal fats in the diet.