There is more to fat, of course, than love handles. More than a belly that sit-ups can't tame. Yet, hard as it is to imagine when our mirror zeroes in on our dimpled thighs, we need some fat. Fat is good. Fat kept our ancestors alive, and it keeps our bodies functioning.
Here are 10 facts that will help you understand fat better.
We need some dietary fat. It helps satisfy us when we eat and is important for basic body metabolism and disease prevention, says Julie Bender, a registered and licensed dietitian at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas.
Some cells are designated "fat cells." If you overeat consistently, fat cells expand. When they reach a certain point, they recruit other cells that aren't designed to hold fat. Thus, fat spills over into parts of the body such as the heart, liver and pancreas. That's when disease occurs.
Fat-free or reduced-fat may not be best. Take peanut butter, for instance. It's an excellent source of healthy fat. When you buy reduced-fat peanut butter, fat often is replaced with sugar or other unhealthy fillers. When choosing salad dressings made with healthy oils such as olive or canola, full-fat is fine, Bender says. Just use them sparingly; calories count, and most salad dressings have lots.
The good news: 10 percent of our fat cells die every year. And the bad? They're replaced by new fat cells.Such is the word from Swedish researchers as reported earlier this year in The New York Times. The cycle of dying and regenerating is based on fat cells we have accumulated through puberty. After that, Bender says, the number remains the same. That makes it especially important to keep our children's diets healthy; what they eat affects their predisposition to disease later in life, she says. Infants and babies, however, need fat to grow. Check with your pediatrician to know how much and what kind.
Here's a fat primer. Our bodies need 20 percent to 30 percent of daily calories to come from fat. The key is what kind of fat. Unsaturated fats -- healthier option: Olive and canola oils, olives, nuts, avocados, salmon, tuna, sardines, some shellfish. A caveat: "Healthy fats are great to choose, but you need to do so in moderation," she says. "Many people think because they're healthy, they can have unlimited amounts." Big N-O.
Saturated fats -- limit. Tropical oils such as coconut and palm oil; high-fat dairy products; fatty meats. Keep these to less than 20 grams per day. For perspective, an 8-ounce, prime-rib portion has 32 grams of saturated fat.
Trans fats -- avoid: Man-made hydrogenated oils. Many restaurants no longer use them. But that's not permission to order extra french fries, Bender says.
Paying attention to labels can help make you healthy. When label-reading, keep saturated fat at 2 grams or less per serving. To determine calories from fat, multiply the number of fat grams listed by 9.
Cardio, resistance training, fat taming. "When you start doing cardio, your body releases hormones and enzymes to send fat to the bloodstream to be used as energy," says Kirk Burgess, senior physical director over health, wellness and aquatics for YMCA of Metropolitan Dallas. "People who come in and do 5 or 10 minutes of cardio aren't burning fat; they're burning simple sugars. Your body may not get into the fat-burning system for 25 minutes." Additionally, studies show that the more toned your muscles, the better you can control your weight. That's because the more muscle weight you have, the more calories you burn.
Liposuction is not a cure for obesity. Enough said.
Fat doesn't make us fat. "The bottom line is, when we take in too many calories, whether they're fat or carbohydrates protein, we will gain weight," Bender says.
Belly fat: Not pretty, not good for you, not easy to lose. Belly fat, especially in women, isn't just uncomfortable and unsightly, it's also unhealthy. It has been linked to higher risk of diabetes, stroke and heart disease. Its secretions narrow blood vessels and promote inflammation, according to the journal Neurology. Additionally, a recent study reported in Weekly Women's Health links abdominal fat on people in their 40s with dementia in their 70s. For women, a belly-button circumference of 35 inches or more means you have an unhealthy concentration of belly fat. For men, that number is 40 inches.
OTHER SOURCES: mayoclinic.com ; webmd.com; americansportsdata.com; Apples & Pears: The Body Shape Solution for Weight Loss and Wellness (Atria; $19.95); cbsnews.com; cdc.gov, Dr. Roger Unger