When people hear the word “fat,” the thoughts that follow aren’t usually positive. Those who have struggled with their weight might regress to days of ridicule on the playground, or perhaps just yesterday, when someone called them “fat,” even if it was only them looking in the mirror.

In today’s society, the pressure to stay thin, trim, ripped and toned is overwhelming. So, inevitably, fat becomes the enemy in the battle to beat the bulge. Thankfully, there are tons of “low-fat” options, right? Wrong. If an item is labeled “low-fat,” most of the time that just means it’s packed with sugar and carbohydrates (which end up being stored as fat in the long run).

I can label a one-pound bag of sugar “zero-percent fat,” and that’s the truth. I always, always, always read the nutrition labels on low-fat products — the statistics and the ingredients — and you should, too. You’ll be shocked by what you discover.

Fat is one of the most misunderstood nutritional concepts because of its universal negative connotation. But there is such a thing as healthy fat, and it’s critical to our diet. Consuming the right kind of fat and in the right amount will not only curb our hunger and keep us satiated longer, but it can prevent the onset of life-threatening health conditions.

So, what exactly is healthy fat? Sounds like an oxymoron, I know. Let’s start by identifying unhealthy fat. Its overconsumption has largely contributed to the current obesity crisis in the United States and the leading cause of death: cardiovascular disease.

Saturated fat is found in animal products, such as cheese, red meat, poultry, butter and whole-milk products, and too much of it increases bad cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease and Type-II Diabetes. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting saturated fat to no more than 7 percent of your daily caloric intake.

Trans fat occurs naturally in some animal products, but is mostly created during food processing through partial hydrogenation of saturated fats. It’s a common ingredient in margarine, shortening, snack foods and commercial baked goods, and it’s equally detrimental to our health. The AHA suggests limiting trans fat to no more than 1 percent of your total daily calories.

Now, on to the healthy fats!

Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat provide us with Omega-3, Omega-6 and Omega-9. I know they sound like a band of robot brothers straight out of “Transformers,” but they’re actually fatty acids that are essential to our health.

Omega-3 and Omega-6 are polyunsaturated fats that play roles in building healthy cells and maintaining brain and nerve function, among other important bodily functions. We cannot produce them on our own, so the only source is food.

Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and tuna are packed with Omega-3, so I’ve started making salmon burgers instead of using beef and adding grilled tuna to my salads. To get my Omega-6 fix, instead of lathering my frying pan with butter, I use plant-based oils like olive or canola.

Omega-9 is a monounsaturated fat that the body can produce, but is also beneficial to obtain in food. It helps eliminate plaque buildup in the arteries reducing the chance of heart attack or stroke. To get my fill of Omega-9, I spread avocado on my sandwiches instead of highly processed products like mayonnaise and mustard.

Even as a college student constantly on the go, it’s easy to make better choices. I carry a Ziplock bag full of lightly salted almonds — a source of all three fatty acids — instead of spending a few bucks on a bag of chips; it’s a healthy habit for my body and my wallet.

Want an even easier way to ramp up the good fat? Pop some pills — seriously. I start my day with two fish oil tablets. For the vegetarians out there, flaxseed oil is a great option.

When consumed in the proper amount (the AHA suggests keeping fat intake between 25 percent and 35 percent of your daily calories), healthy fats help us remain satiated, enhance bodily functions and prevent the onset of multiple diseases.

In other words, fat can be your friend — and not your foe — if you let it.

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