Fats are not necessarily evil

November 30, 1999|By LYNN F. LITTLE

Food labels are changing and consumers can benefit. In 2006, nutrition fact labels on food are required to identify the presence of trans fats. The requirement has prompted some manufacturers to reformulate foods to eliminate the troublesome trans fats ? many cookies and crackers are now being touted as having "0 trans fats."

Trans fatty acids, also known as trans fat, are artery-clogging and formed when vegetable oils are hardened into margarine or shortening. Trans fat also is found in cookies, crackers, doughnuts, pastries, icing, potato chips, french fries, fried chicken and microwaved popcorn. Trans fats also are called hydrogenated fats.

We all need some fat. Like carbohydrates, fat is used by the body as an energy source. It also is key in delivering fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K and adds flavor and texture to foods.

Fats also add satiety value, our feeling satisfied after we eat. Peanut butter is an example ? it's the fat in peanut butter that makes it smooth, creamy, filling and satisfying.


Too much fat, however, can add up to extra pounds and contribute to a long list of health problems, including obesity, heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.

Fat is necessary and, for adults, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) dietary guidelines recommend limiting total fat consumption to 20 to 35 percent of total daily calories.

Nutrition labels identify the grams of fat in each serving. Since one gram of fat yields 9 calories, multiply the grams of fat by nine to find the fat calories per serving. For a 2,000-calorie diet with 30 percent of calories from fat, no more than 600 calories should come from fat.

The dietary recommendations (from the USDA) for children ages 2 to 3 recommend that 30 to 35 percent of calories come from fat, which is needed for growth and development, particularly of the nervous system. Children in this age group can, for example, benefit from the fat in whole milk.

For children and adolescents ages 4 to 18, limiting fat to 25 to 35 percent of total calories is recommended.

Fats fall into two basic categories: saturated and unsaturated. A saturated fat is typically solid at room temperature and usually from an animal source. Butter and lard are examples. Coconut and palm kernel oils are plant oils high in saturated fat.

The chemical composition of unsaturated fats, which generally are considered the more healthful fats, varies. They may, for example, be classed as a monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fat. Olive and canola oils, which are plant-based monounsaturated fats, are liquid at room temperature. Polyunsaturated fats, also liquid at room temperature, are the main type of fat in corn and safflower oils. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in walnuts, flaxseed and fish, are polyunsaturated fats.

Americans are advised to eat less that 300 mg of cholesterol a day and as little trans fat as possible, and to limit saturated (solid) fats to less than 10 percent of total calories. Currently, we get from 12 to 14 percent of our total energy from saturated fats.

Here are 10 fat-reducing tips that could help you follow the dietary guidelines and reduce saturated fat in your diet:

1. Read food labels; look at the type of fat and the percent of calories that comes from fat.

2. Weigh fat and flavor. A little fat can go a long way in flavoring food, so look for reduced-fat versions of favorite foods, such as a reduced fat butter-like spread that combines an unsaturated fat (like canola oil) with a saturated fat (butter) to reduce fat in a flavorful spread. Reduced-fat salad dressings, cream cheese and even fat-free half-and-half can reduce saturated fats in the diet without sacrificing flavor.

3. Serve salad dressings, sauces and gravies on the side. This way you can choose how much of these foods, which often are high in fat, to eat.

4. Choose lean cuts of meat and poultry. Trim visible fat and use cooking methods that do not add fat, such as oven-roasting, broiling, poaching, steaming, baking or grilling.

5. Cook at home if you can. You'll know exactly what you're eating and how it is prepared.

6. If eating out, choose menu items that are marked as healthful choices and/or described with words such as baked, broiled or lean grilled.

7. Increase fruit and vegetable servings. Though these are typically low-fat foods, it's important to not add fat when cooking or serving fruits and vegetables. For potatoes, it's the add-ons, a chunk of butter or a dollop of sour cream, rather than the potato, that's a problem.

8. Look for recipes that call for oil and not solid fats.

9. Use flavorful fat replacements. Replace some of the fat in a brownie recipe with applesauce, or use reduced-fat spread or nonfat yogurt to replace high-fat toppings for baked potatoes. Look for little ways to lower fat, without giving up favorite foods. Choose skim milk instead of whole milk or a graham cracker crust instead of a traditional pie crust prepared with lard. Another example is to make fruit pie, which typically has a double crust, with one crust and/or a crumb topping or lattice crust to reduce fat, not flavor.

10. Eat recommended portions, and, if you're still hungry, opt for seconds in foods that are filling (fruits and vegetables) but low in calories and fat. If you want Grandma's high-fat cookies, eat one or two small ones.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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