Fats have had a bad reputation for a long time. They are calorie dense, providing nine calories per gram compared to carbohydrates and protein, which provide four calories per gram. However, scientists are finding that eating a balance of healthy fats actually aids in the wellbeing of your heart and body. Understanding more about fats and their functions can help you find a better balance of them in your own diet.

The macronutrient group of fats includes both animal and plant fats. Fats, also called lipids, are classified into:

• Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) which are liquid at room temperature and promote HDL (good) blood cholesterol production and decrease total and LDL (bad) cholesterol. They are found in foods such as nuts, vegetable oils, and avocados.

• Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA’s) are also liquid at room temperature (because they are unsaturated) and lower total blood cholesterol and production of both HDL and LDL cholesterol. Foods high in PUFA’s include corn, safflower, soybean, sesame, sunflower oils, walnuts, flaxseeds, and most seafood.

• Saturated fatty acids are solid at room temperature and tell the liver to make more total and LDL cholesterol. They are mostly found in animal products like high fat meat cuts, butter, whole milk, cheese, coconut and palm oils.

• There are also trans fatty acids (that act like saturated fats) which are usually man-made through hydrogenation to increase the shelf life, and stearic acid which is a saturated fatty acid that seems to have no effect on blood cholesterol and is found in dark chocolate, meat, milk and milk products, and other plant foods.

Two PUFA’s worth mentioning, linoleic acid (LA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), are categorized as essential to your diet because your body cannot make them. These are also known as omega- 3’s and omega-6’s and provide important health benefits such as reducing blood clotting in the arteries, protection from the hardening of arteries, and lowering total and LDL cholesterol.

Fats are important for energy (although not the body’s first choice), immune function, thermoregulation, shock absorption, healthy cell membranes, hormone production, muscle contraction, blood clotting, blood pressure, and providing essential nutrients. The vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble, meaning they are dissolved in fat and are then able to be carried into your bloodstream to feed your cells.

We eat fat because it makes our food taste good! Fat provides aroma, flavor, tenderness, and satiety. It was a big trend not too long ago to have foods labeled as being “fat free” or “low fat.” We still see those claims today but less so because consumers are realizing that in order to make up for lost taste, food producers add sugar. We now know that sugar has its own set of health risks if eaten too often.

Maintaining a healthy weight and being healthy involves much more than just eating less fat, or even less calories. The key is a combination of eating enough for your energy needs, eating quality food, and getting enough physical activity. Doing these things in combination changes your individual cells to actually act and respond differently which translates into overall body health.

Practically speaking, try cooking with and eating heart healthy MUFA’s and PUFA’s rather than saturated fats. Trans fats should be avoided altogether. As you shift your thinking about fats and replace foods such as butter, high fat dairy products, fatty meats, and especially processed foods with oils, nuts, fish, avocados, olives, etc., you will most likely notice a decrease in overall sugar consumption and you may actually feel more satisfied. Rather than being an enemy, fats can play an important role in maintaining a healthy weight and nourishing your body.

Molly Roemer graduated with a degree in Dietetics from BYU and currently resides in Alamo. She enjoys food and family and seeks to enrich the lives of others through both. Email questions or comments to roemermolly@gmail.com.