The fats in our food are important because they are carriers of the fat-soluble vitamins: A, D, E, and K. In addition, dietary fat includes and supplies essential fatty acids, particularly linoleic acid.
All animal life requires polyunsaturated fatty acids, and linoleic acid is of primary importance to humans. The adult requirement is low, and easily met by a well-rounded diet, but children have a greater need for linoleic acid for growth. The essential fatty acids are important in preventing drying and flaking of the skin and have several metabolic roles: maintaining cell membranes, regulating cholesterol metabolism, and helping to create hormone-like substances needed for many body processes. But what, in fact, are these fatty acids? The fats in our body contain the same substances as the fats in our food: fatty acids and f atlike compounds called phospholipids (such as lecithin) and cholesterol.
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The fats we consume come from many sources, both visible and invisible. Visible fats are ingredients such as olive oil or shortening, which are used in preparing foods, or extras such as butter, salad dressing, or cream cheese, added at the table. The fat you trim from your steak is also the visible variety. Invisible fats are an integral part of foods, including the fat found in meat, nuts, fish, or eggs, the butterfat in whole milk or cheese, and fat added in processing.
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The dietary role of fats is not a simple one. Although a moderate amount of fat is needed in everyone’s diet, many people go overboard. The consumption of too much fat, and fat of the “wrong” type, may be linked to two of this country’s greatest health problems: obesity and cardiovascular disease.
Good nutrition depends on as little as one tablespoon of dietary fat each day. Most people exceed that amount many times over. While holding off on butter and mayonnaise, they may still be eating large amounts of hidden fat in foods.
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