Figuring Out the Fats

Just like calories, fats are more often thought of as a foe rather than a friend. But the truth is that we need fats—just like we need calories, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, and minerals—to survive.

Healthy Food

Just like calories, fats are more often thought of as a foe rather than a friend. But the truth is that we need fats—just like we need calories, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, and minerals—to survive. Fats not only provide fuel (remember the 9 calories per gram from last week?), but they are necessary in the production of cells and hormones; they provide protection to organs; they help maintain body heat; they assist in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, and K); and they promote brain and eye development in infants and children. The trouble with fat is that the calorically-dense nutrient can easily be consumed in excessive amounts, causing weight gain—and the health conditions associated with overweight and obesity, like heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and others. Even when consumed in appropriate amounts, certain “bad” fats can harden and clog arteries, leading to heart disease. Fortunately, the “good” fats help protect against heart disease, and thus should be the predominant fats in any diet.

The Good Fats
Unsaturated fats—namely monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats—are the fats that can be healthful when consumed in moderation. These fats help to reduce LDL cholesterol (the “Lousy” cholesterol) levels and may help in lowering the risk of heart disease. They are liquid at room temperature and are found in foods like:

  • Plant oils, including canola, olive, peanut, sesame, sunflower, soybean, and corn oils
  • Walnuts, peanuts (and peanut butter), and other nuts and seeds
  • Fatty fish, like salmon, mackerel, trout, albacore tuna, and herring
  • Avocados
  • Olives

Among these “good” fats are essential fats—or fats that we must eat because our body cannot make or convert them from other foods. Although we need to eat these fats, it’s important to eat them in moderation, as with the other unsaturated fats, to keep calories and total fat intake within appropriate ranges (see below). These essential fats include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. You can find:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids in fatty fish (mentioned above), walnuts, flaxseeds, canola and soybean oils
  • Omega-6 fatty acids in nuts and corn, sunflower, and safflower oils

The Bad Fats
Saturated and trans fats are the “bad” fats that we want to limit in our diet. These fats are usually solid at room temperature, and unlike the mostly plant-based unsaturated fats, are often (although not always) derived from animal products. These fats increase LDL cholesterol levels, may decrease HDL cholesterol (the “Happy” cholesterol), and increase the risk of heart disease. Keep a look out for—and limit—these foods containing saturated and trans fats:

  • Meats, like beef, lamb, and pork, and poultry with skin
  • Full-fat and reduced fat dairy products, like butter, lard, cream, whole and 2% milk, ice cream, and cheese
  • Baked goods, like cakes, pies, pastries, doughnuts, and cookies
  • Fried foods, like French fries, onion rings, fried chicken, chimichangas, and crab rangoons
  • Palm and coconut oils
  • Stick margarine and vegetable shortening

Alert! Don’t be fooled into thinking that “partially hydrogenated oils” are healthy because they are liquid oils; these oils have been altered (hydrogenated) to contain trans fats. And although foods may be listed as ‘trans fat free,’ they are not necessarily healthy choices; their trans fats were likely replaced with equally undesirable saturated fats.

How Much Fat Do I Need—and Which Ones Do I Choose?
Again, like calories, we each need our own unique amount of fat each day to promote growth and maintain health. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 recommends that 20-35% of calories come from fat for adults, with saturated fat providing no more than 7-10% of calories. For a 2000 calorie per day diet, this would mean 500-700 calories per day from total fat. You can also use the American Heart Association’s My Fats Translator to calculate how much of each type of fat you should be eating—and for quick tips on how to meet these goals in your usual diet.

To begin increasing your intake of “good” fats and decreasing your intake of “bad” fats, try some of these tactics:

  • Forget the fryer and choose to bake, broil, roast, or grill your foods instead.
  • Choose lean (>90% lean) cuts of meat when grocery shopping and trim off excess fat before eating.
  • Remove skin from poultry before eating.
  • Use low-fat (1%) or fat-free milk, cheeses, yogurt, frozen yogurt, and other dairy products alone and in recipes.
  • Use vegetable oils and tub margarine instead of stick margarine or butter at the table and when cooking or baking.
  • Keep baked goods as special treats, only to be enjoyed on occasion, opting instead for fruit, popsicles made from 100% fruit, or puddings and frozen yogurt made with low-fat milk to satisfy your sweet tooth.

Tips When Eating Out
To keep your fat intake to a minimum when eating out:

  • Choose foods that are steamed, baked, grilled, broiled, or roasted because they are likely to have less calories and fat than foods which are fried, creamed, or sautéed.
  • Ask for dressings, sauces, mayonnaise, gravy, and other fat-containing condiments to be served on the side, and then use sparingly to limit fat intake.
  • Select broth-based soups rather than cream-based soups.
  • Ask for toast, baked potatoes, vegetables, and other items to be prepared dry or without butter, then add a small amount of soft margarine, reduced-fat oil-based dressing, or salt-free seasoning for flavor.
  • Substitute standard fried side items (like French fries and onion rings) with healthier options, like a side salad, steamed vegetable, baked potato, or fruit salad.
  • Choose Healthy Dining-approved menu options, all of which meet strict total fat and saturated fat criteria, like these: