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The 1970s and 1980s diet lore demonized all dietary fat as increasing your risk for heart disease and weight gain. Moderate fat intake supports a healthy body and can help you feel more satiated so that you eat less overall and better manage your weight. Weight management doesn't mean you lose all body fat either -- you need some to support good health. Body fat consists of essential fat and storage fat.

Dietary Fat and Your Body

Dietary fat promotes a healthy, functioning body, and fat is an essential nutrient necessary for energy. When you exercise, for example, you use carbohydrates for the first 20 minutes. Exercise for longer than that, though, and fat fuels much of your effort.

That's why eating a little fat with your veggies is a good idea, according to a Purdue University study published in 2012. Salad dressings containing monounsaturated fats, as opposed to fat-free dressings, helped study participants better absorb the carotenoids in the vegetables.

The fats you eat are incorporated in the membranes surrounding the cells in your body. These fats play a role in helping certain compounds -- such as proteins, ions, antioxidants and vitamins -- pass in and out of the cells through the membrane.

Essential fatty acids -- specifically linoleic and linolenic acid -- support eye and brain health, control inflammation and help with blood clotting. They're called "essential" because you need to get them from your diet and can't produce them on your own. Fatty fish, seeds and olive oil are quality sources.

Consuming fat also promotes healthy-looking skin and hair. The essential fatty acids known as omega 3s -- acquired from fatty fish and walnuts, for example -- help keep your scalp moist, so your hair grows lush. These fatty acids contribute to a moist, supple complexion, too, and fight premature aging.

Making Fat Part of Your Diet

Dietary fat has 9 calories per gram -- compared to the 4 calories per gram in protein and carbohydrates -- and ideally, fat should make up between 20 and 35 percent of your total calorie intake daily. For a person who eats 2,000 calories per day, that's between 44 and 78 grams daily. Include mostly healthy mono- or poly-unsaturated fats found in olive oil, avocados, nuts, fatty fish and seeds.

It's prudent to limit saturated fats, found in fatty cuts of meat and whole-milk dairy, to no more than 6 percent of your total daily calories. For a 2,000-calorie plan, that's about 13 grams maximum. Saturated fat may increase your levels of bad cholesterol, or low-density lipoprotein, and contribute to an increased risk of heart disease.

Avoiding trans fats may be one of the best things you can do for your health. They're oils that have been hydrogenated -- or chemically altered -- in order to have a longer shelf life. They cause the double whammy of raising the bad LDL cholesterol and lowering the good cholesterol, or high-density lipoprotein. Trans fats are in some restaurant foods and processed snacks, but the Food and Drug Administration is requiring manufacturers to phase them out by summer 2018.

The Role of Essential Body Fat

The fat that is part of your very body structure and function is known as essential fat. Women have more of it because hormones drive fat to be stored in the breasts, pelvis, hips and thighs to support pregnancy and breastfeeding. No matter how lean people appear, they all carry some body fat. Men have on average a minimum of 3 percent fat and women 13 percent to support life and reproductive functions.

Essential fat is found in the internal organs and the marrow of the bones. Fats make up some of the structure of the central nervous system as part of brain cell membranes. In addition, fat helps form special sheaths that surround nerves and enable them to transmit messages throughout the body.

Some fat also exists within your muscles. Your body mobilizes this intramuscular fat for energy, especially when you exercise at moderate intensity levels.

Storage Fat's Role in the Body

Visceral storage fat, often referred to as deep belly fat, weaves around your organs and provides some cushioning, but too much of it can release compounds into the bloodstream that raise your risk of chronic disease, such as:

  • type-2 diabetes
  • cardiovascular disease

Healthy Body Fat Levels

The average, healthy level of body fat is 15 to 20 percent for a man and 20 to 25 percent for a woman. Athletes and fitness enthusiasts may have body fat percentages that are lower to support athletic performance. Body fat levels below 8 percent in a man or 14 percent in a woman afford no additional health benefits and could put these individuals at risk of being too lean. Having too little fat can result in menstrual cycle interruptions, greater susceptibility to illness and hormone dysfunction.

A body fat percentage of 20 or more for a man or 30 or more for a woman increases the risk of chronic disease, such as type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Even if a person falls into a normal weight range, if too much of that weight comes from fat tissue, he is still at risk for developing weight-related health issues.

The Wrap Up

The 1970s and 1980s diet lore demonized all dietary fat as increasing your risk for heart disease and weight gain. Body fat consists of essential fat and storage fat. That's why eating a little fat with your veggies is a good idea, according to a Purdue University study published in 2012. Essential fatty acids -- specifically linoleic and linolenic acid -- support eye and brain health, control inflammation and help with blood clotting. These fatty acids contribute to a moist, supple complexion, too, and fight premature aging. Dietary fat has 9 calories per gram -- compared to the 4 calories per gram in protein and carbohydrates -- and ideally, fat should make up between 20 and 35 percent of your total calorie intake daily. They're oils that have been hydrogenated -- or chemically altered -- in order to have a longer shelf life. Visceral storage fat, often referred to as deep belly fat, weaves around your organs and provides some cushioning, but too much of it can release compounds into the bloodstream that raise your risk of chronic disease, such as: type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease.

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