Most of us know that a healthy diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fiber – and low in fat. In fact, it is recommended that fats make up no more than 25-35% of our daily calories. Keep in mind that fat contains more than twice the calories, gram for gram, than carbohydrate or protein. Then there is consideration of the type of fat in question: trans fats, saturated fats, unsaturated fats, hydrogenated fats, omega 3 fatty acids? It can certainly be confusing, but the particulars are worth getting to know as the differences can have a huge impact on your health.
Saturated Fats (Bad Fats)
Saturated fats are perhaps the easiest to understand, since these are fats that come from animals – think meat and dairy products. Saturated fats contain cholesterol. There are a few plant sources, such as coconut and palm oil.
Unsaturated Fats (Good Fats)
Unsaturated fats come in two varieties, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. These fats are found in fish, nuts, seeds, and oils from plants. These fats may help to reduce cholesterol, especially when used in place of their saturated counterparts, such as when we replace butter with olive oil in a recipe.
Trans Fats/Hydrogenated Fats (Good Fats gone BAD!)
Hydrogenation is a process that turns unsaturated fats (good fats) into hydrogenated or trans fats (very bad fats). Hydrogenation produces products such as stick margarine, shortening, and some cooking oils (partially hydrogenated and hydrogenated vegetable oils). Trans fats are insidious in our diets; they sneak their way into many baked goods as well as fried foods. In a large study of women, the most common sources of trans fat were margarine; beef,pork or lamb as main course; cookies; and white bread. Though they do not contain cholesterol, they still cause bad cholesterol to rise in our bodies, maybe even more than the cholesterol-containing saturated fats. To add insult to injury, they may also decrease good cholesterol. It is recommended that trans fat constitute no more than 1% of our diet.
Since 2006, trans fat content must be listed on nutrition labels. This can be enormously helpful when shopping; my family discovered a formerly beloved pancake mix contained trans fat. Eating out can still be perilous, however, as there is no labeling requirement at this time. Hydrogenated vegetable oil is typically used to prepare commercially fried foods. Keep in mind these products can still be labeled as ‘cholesterol free’ and ‘cooked in vegetable oil.’ One order of fast food French fries easily exceeds the daily recommended intake of trans fats by several times!
Now that you know the skinny on different fats, use the following American Heart Association guidelines to keep your family eating and feeling well.
- Use naturally occurring, unhydrogenated vegetable oils such as canola, safflower, sunflower or olive.
- Avoid saturated fat in your diet. Limit total fat to between 25 and 35% of calories, mostly from unsaturated sources (fish, nuts, seeds, vegetable oils)
- Read labels and select processed foods made with unhydrogenated oil rather than partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated oils, or saturated fats.
- Use soft margarine instead of butter and choose liquid or tub varieties over harder stick forms. Look for “0g trans fat” on label.
- Don’t eat fried or baked goods often as they tend to be high in trans fat. French fries, doughnuts, cookies, cracker, muffins, pies and cakes are examples.
- Limit commercially fried foods and baked goods as they are usually very high in fat in general, and it is often hydrogenated or trans fat.
- Avoid fried fast foods. They are usually cooked in hydrogenated products and are very high in trans fat.
- Use fat-free and low-fat dairy products.
Again, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grain and high–fiber foods is also recommended. The American Heart Association has great information on keeping you and your family healthy.