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Teaching Nutrition: Background information about nutrition, the nutrients, and healthy eating habits

Cooking oils and sunflower seeds.

Fats are semisolid, energy-filled organic macromolecules found in animal and plant tissues. The term lipid is often used interchangeably with the term fat, but it is also used to describe a larger group that includes fats (solids, semisolids at room temperature), oils (liquids at room temperature), and fat-related substances. The major form of fat in the body and in foods is known as triglycerol or triglyceride. Triglycerides are organic compounds containing a glycerol backbone and three attached fatty acid chains. Other forms of fat in the body include sterols, a class of fats consisting of fused carbon rings without fatty acid chains, and phospholipids (such as lecithin). Steroids include cholesterol, Vitamin D, and sex hormones (estrogen and testosterone).

Functions of fat in the body include:

  • provide energy
  • transport and absorb fat-soluble vitamins
  • cushion vital organs in the body
  • important part of the membranes of cells
  • supply essential fatty acids
  • add flavor to foods
  • satisfy the appetite by delaying hunger
  • insulate the body
  • serve as protection for nerves and blood vessels

Fatty acid chains are classified as saturated, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated depending on the number of double bonds they possess. Every time a double bond is formed, one of the hydrogen molecules is removed and a tiny bend or kink forms in the chain. The more saturated the fat, the fewer kinks it has, the more closely the molecules can pack, and the more solid it is at room temperature.

  • Saturated fats have no double bonds and the most hydrogen. Saturated fats are found in animal meats, butter, chocolate, egg yolks, lard, coconut and palm oil (the only saturated oils), and many other foods. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest that 10% or fewer of calories should come from saturated fat.
  • Monounsaturated fats have one double bond and less hydrogen than saturated fats. Example sources include canola, olive, and sunflower oils, and nuts.
  • Polyunsaturated fats have multiple double bonds and even less hydrogen than monounsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats can be found in soybean, corn, and safflower oil, walnuts, and flaxseeds.

Trans fats are a special category of fats. Trans fats occur naturally in small amounts in meat and dairy foods, but the majority of trans fats in the American diet come from hydrogenation. When liquid oils are hydrogenated, treated with hydrogen to become semi-solid or solid fats, trans fats can be created. Trans fats are most commonly found in vegetable shortening, hard (stick) margarine, and manufactured foods such as crackers, cookies, and baked goods. Consumption of trans fats should be limited, as they have been linked to an increased risk in coronary heart disease.

Children ages 4 to 18 years should receive between 25 and 35% of their calories from fat; adults should receive between 20 and 35% of their calories from fat.

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