All About Fat
Understanding different types of fat can mean the difference between healthy weight loss and the risk of serious disease
WHY DO WE NEED FAT?
Fat is an important part of the foods you eat. But, too much fat can lead to heart disease or cancer, which has given fat a bad name. Your body needs some fat, however. The key is to eat just the right amount.
Fat provides essential fatty acids that carry key vitamins (A, D, E, and K) throughout the body. One semi-essential fatty acid helps prevent growth deficiencies and builds cell wall membranes! Fat also gives flavor to many foods.
Body fat protects vital organs and keeps your body from losing too much heat. It also stores energy for you, releasing energy when you need it. Unlike the quick energy from carbohydrates, the energy from fat is very good for endurance activities. But, remember, too much body fat can lead to health problems.
Your body turns carbohydrate and protein into fatty acids; however, there are some fatty acids your body can’t make. You need to get these fatty acids from the food you eat.
DIFFERENT KINDS OF FAT
Fats in foods can be grouped into 3 basic types: saturated fat, monounsaturated fat, and polyunsaturated fat. The difference between saturated and unsaturated fat is important for your health. Eating too much saturated fat may cause heart disease and raise your risk of colon and breast cancers.
Most saturated fats are solid at room temperature and tend to come from meat, egg yolks, and dairy products. There are some exceptions, however: coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil also contain saturated fat. As a rule, saturated fats are harder and more stable—butter, margarine, lard, and the fat in meats and cheeses are good examples.
Monounsaturated fats are found mainly in olive, peanut, and canola oils; they tend to be liquid at room temperature. Polyunsaturated fats can be either liquid or soft at room temperature. They are found mainly in safflower, sunflower, corn, soybean, and cottonseed oils and some fish. Omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fats are especially good for you; omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish and vegetable oils, and omega-6 fatty acids, found in vegetable oils, have been shown to be good for your heart.
Unsaturated fats are generally healthier than saturated fats, thus many people choose to eat less high-fat meats, like beef. They may also cook more with vegetable oils. The best unsaturated oils are corn, safflower, soy, and sunflower; safflower oil is the most highly unsaturated oil.
Trans fats get a lot of attention because they are linked to heart disease. There are small amounts of these fats in some meats and dairy products. Some food companies make synthetic trans fats through a process called hydrogenation. This process turns liquid vegetable oils into solid, spreadable fat—trans fats. Hydrogenation increases the shelf life and is used to make food stay fresh longer and improve texture. Foods with these oils must list “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” in the ingredients label. These oils are used in cakes, cookies, fried foods, salad dressings, and some snack foods.
Most health experts now suggest limiting the trans fats you eat. Trans fats raise levels of LDL (low-density lipoprotein, or “bad”) cholesterol, increasing the risk of heart disease. Because of this, food companies must now list trans fat on the label (they can be found directly under saturated fat and on some Nutrition Facts panels). Some restaurant chains and food makers have cut back on use of trans fats.
TRY TO EAT A DIET LOW IN FAT
Remember 3 things about fat. First, fat stores a lot of energy, which can be bad news when you want to lose weight. Fat contains double the amount of calories (9 calories per gram vs. 4 calories per gram) found in either protein or carbohydrate. If your diet plan includes foods that are high in fat, try to eat smaller portions. The fat on a steak has more calories than the same amount of pure sugar.
Second, too much fat is linked with serious diseases. The average American gets close to 40% of his or her calories from fat, though the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends a total fat intake of 20% to 35% of total calories. Try to opt for unsaturated fats—these come from fish, nuts, and vegetable oils. It is recommended that saturated fat makes up less than 10% of the calories you eat, and cholesterol intake should be less than 300 mg per day. Finally, fat calories are easier to convert to body fat.
For all these reasons, cutting down the fat you eat can help with weight loss and general health.
SOURCES OF FAT
We tend not to realize how much fat we eat because about 60% of the fat you eat can’t be seen. This is the fat in food, such as meat, cheese, nuts, breads, etc. We call this hidden fat. Visible fat is the fat you can see—butter on bread, for example. When you record the fat in your diet, be sure to count both visible and hidden fat.
The fat in some foods adds up quickly. Fat contains more than twice the calories of protein or carbohydrate—more specifically, 1 gram of fat has 9 calories, while 1 gram of carbohydrate or protein has only 4 calories. This means that 1 teaspoon (1 pat) of butter or margarine has 4 grams of fat, or 36 calories.
It is important to watch out for extras with high amounts of fat. For example, a bologna and cheese sandwich made with 2 slices (2 oz) of bologna, 2 slices (2 oz) of cheese, and 2 teaspoons of mayonnaise has 36 grams of fat. That’s 324 calories just from fat! A sandwich made with lean beef, lettuce, tomato, and low-fat mayonnaise, and served with a cup of nonfat milk instead of cheese, has only 6 grams of fat, or about 54 calories.
REDUCING THE FAT IN YOUR DIET
Read the food label on the package to find out how much fat is inside. Snacks and desserts are often high in fat; therefore, when you need a snack, try to choose fresh fruits and vegetables, which are low in fat. If you want something salty or crunchy, try low-fat or unflavored popcorn popped in the microwave or air popper instead of chips.
Pastries, doughnuts, cookies, and frosted cakes are high in fat; try to eat them sparingly. You may want to opt for sorbet and frozen fruit bars as tasty low-fat desserts; baked fruit desserts, such as baked apples or fruit crumbles made with low-fat toppings, can be other healthful options. Remember to check the food label on packaged foods for both fat and total calorie counts.
If you are cooking, there are many steps you can take to reduce the fat in your diet. You may want to try the following tips:
- Choose recipes with little added butter, margarine, or oil
- Trim visible fat from meat before cooking
- Remove skin and fat from chicken and turkey before cooking
- Use nonstick pans and sprays for cooking
- Substitute low-fat or nonfat plain yogurt for sour cream or mayonnaise in sauces, salads, and soups
- Broil or bake meats instead of frying
WORD TO THE WISE ABOUT REDUCED-FAT FOODS
At the grocery store you see many “reduced fat” or "low-fat" foods. These can help you cut fat from your diet; however, remember that low-fat does not always mean low calories. In fact, some low-fat cookies have nearly as many calories as regular cookies.
Studies have shown that when people think a food is "healthy," they often end up eating more at that meal, even when the food they chose is quite high in calories. Similarly, if food is labeled “low-fat,” people will eat more of it. So, if you encounter cookies, crackers, or other foods that are low in fat, make sure to check the calories.
Remember, it’s not fat that makes you gain weight, it’s the total number of calories consumed. It is easy to eat a diet that is low in fat but high in calories—this is why counting total calories is important for weight management.