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butter curls While the American diet is certainly too high in fat, many people don't realize that a certain amount of fats are necessary to maintain good health.

What, exactly, are dietary fats?  Well, they can be derived from both plants and animals, but regardless of where they come from, they are triglyceride esters that are made up of three fatty acid molecules bound together by one glycerol molecule.  There are about 25 different fatty acids that can combine to form a triglyceride, and the combination determines the nature of the fat.

Fats not only add flavor and texture to food, they also allow us to feel full long after carbohydrates and proteins have been digested.  In addition, fats are responsible for supplying the fatty acids that are needed for things such as the production of sex hormones and prostaglandins, the formation and function of cell membranes, the transfer of other molecules in and out of cells, and the growth and development of children.

But too much of a good thing can be bad.  Fats contain about 250 calories per ounce — or nine calories per gram — and a diet rich in fats can cause significant weight gain.  Today, fats make up about 35 to 40 percent of the American diet.  Developing countries, on the other hand, have diets that include about 10 percent fats.  What's the right amount of fats? Well, the American Heart Association says that it's somewhere in between — about 25 to 30 percent of the daily diet should be made up of fats.

Why is it so hard to reduce fats?  While we would get all the fat we need in a mere tablespoon of oil per day, dietary fats hide in common foods like lean meat, cheese, sauces, nuts, fried foods, pastries, and snack food.

The trick to staying healthy is to eat good fats, instead of the bad.  Bad fats can be found in desserts, fried foods, and processed foods.  Good fats, on the other hand, can be found in fish, nuts, olives, and vegetables like the avocado.

A good way to ensure that you get the correct amount of fats without getting too many is to fill your diet with nuts, vegetables, fruits, and legumes, and to keep snack foods, fried foods, and fatty meats to a minimum.

You can learn more about the nutritional value of fats by visiting this Fats and Cholesterol resource, published by the United States Department of Agriculture.

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Guide to Dietary Fats

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Heart-healthy, Cardiovascular Diet
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