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Online learning resources for diabetes, asthma, hypertension, and nutrition.
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Good Eats: Fuel for Better Living

Reassessing Fat

By Mary Jo Feeney

You'd have to be living under a huge rock not to have heard all the hype about dietary fats. Good fat, bad fat, lowfat, no fat, trans-fat, saturated, unsaturated, poly- and monounsaturated fatty acids, CLA — the varieties seem endless.

Fats are found in meats, dairy foods, eggs and nuts. They are added in cooking, used as a table spread or dipping oil, baked into muffins, cookies and scones, and mixed into salad dressings or other manufactured products.

You know all this. But if you are like many people, what you may not know is the difference between the types of fat and just exactly what nutrition experts recommend.

The state of the debate

It is easy to think that science is flip-flopping when, after all you've heard about the dangers of red meat, you suddenly read that there is a "good" fat found in animal foods. Actually, it's not that simple.

Although consistent information can be hard to find, health reports reflect what is known at any given time. While the debate over the pros and cons of dietary fats continues, there are some things on which most experts agree.

First of all, fat is an essential nutrient. Contrary to what you may have heard around the lunch table, a healthy diet is not fat-free. Fat not only provides energy, but also helps the body absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Some fats are necessary for early growth and development in children.

And too important to be overlooked, fat adds flavor to our meals, satisfying not only our physiological hunger but our psychological appetite.

We also know that all fats are not equal. Fats are mixtures of saturated, mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids and the combination of these basic building blocks determines the type of fat.

Today, many health experts agree that the key to a healthy diet is to monitor the type of fat rather than merely the quantity of fat you consume. For instance, although a plant-based diet — which includes fats and oils from nuts, seeds and grains — is considered healthy, it is not necessarily low in fat.

The monounsaturated fats that are found in a plant-based diet are healthier than other types of fat. So, what are the different types, where do them come from and what do they do?

Breaking it down

Research tells us that real deal on fat is more complicated than the diet aisle in the supermarket reveals. Fats are not all bad, some are good for you, and you may be surprised to learn what foods have which.

  • Saturated Fat: There is considerable and convincing evidence that eating less saturated fat (the type of fat found mainly in animal products) reduces the risk of heart disease.
  • Trans-Fat: There is a some evidence that trans-fatty acids increase the risk of heart disease, particularly when trans-fatty acids are substituted for unhydrogenated oils. Trans-fats occur naturally in small amounts in meats and dairy products. Most, however, are produced when unsaturated fats and oils are partially hydrogenated (hardened) for use in baked foods, snack foods and for use in some table spreads.
  • Stearic Acid: Stearic acid in meats and chocolate do not raise cholesterol levels like other saturated fatty acids.
  • CLA: A fatty acid found in beef and dairy products, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) appears to have beneficial effects for several diseases including cancer, diabetes and obesity.
  • Monounsaturated Fat: Plant foods are the source of most monounsaturated fatty acids. These fatty acids help lower total blood cholesterol without lowering the HDL or "good" level of blood cholesterol, and without raising blood triglyceride levels.

Now that you know what they are and where to find them, how do you get the right fats into your diet?

A fat-finding mission

The bottom line is: strike a balance. While you should be aware of fat, fat-finding should not be a witch-hunt. A healthy diet includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, (and if you are not vegetarian or vegan) low-fat dairy products, lean meats, poultry and fish.

Often, the culprit in the obesity and chronic disease equation is not fat itself but an imbalance of all energy-providing nutrients.

A balanced and healthy diet contains moderate amounts of fats. If you eat about 2,000 calories a day (about right for a man planning to lose some weight or for an active woman), aim for 65 grams of fat a day with about 20 grams of saturated fat.

The goal is to limit your total fat intake to an average of 30 percent of the total calories you consume. Try to reduce saturated fat to less than one-third of your total fat consumption. Remember that your total diet counts — not just eating or avoiding only one food. Balance your food choices over the day and week rather than focusing on a particular recipe or meal.

If your fast-paced, convenience-driven life finds you relying on restaurants, take-out foods, packaged meal solutions from the supermarket, or other prepared foods, you have less control over the visible, trimmable fat on meat and poultry and the dressing that drenches salad greens. Be aware that prepared foods, casseroles and baked goods are major sources of hidden fat in everyday food choices.

In addition, be clear on the concept that reduced fat or lowfat is not the same as low- or no-calorie. Sometimes to ensure a tasty product manufacturers add sugar in place of fat, leaving foods lower in fat but higher in the calories that may get converted to fat in the body.

Use labels.

Check the nutrition facts on packaged foods to see if a reduced fat product is indeed lower in calories than its full fat counterpart. You may be avoiding fat, but not calories nor the health risks of obesity.

While we have been focusing our discussion on types versus quantities of fat, it is important to acknowledge that because fat is the most calorically dense nutrient, most of us can benefit from limiting our total fat consumption.

While consuming an excess of fats is by no means the only cause of obesity, it is a factor. With obesity comes serious risk for a number of chronic disease. A study by the American Cancer Society determined that obesity itself can be as deadly as smoking. For about half of all American adults, and about one-third of American children, obesity is a major health concern.

Finally, eating well and staying active are both essential for good health. It is hard to expend the calories you take in without regular exercise. Turn off the TV, sleep your computer and take yourself outside for a walk!

Reviewed by Medical Advisory Committee October 1999

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