We all need some fat in our diet. Like carbohydrates, fat is used by the body as an energy source. It is also key in delivering fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K and adds flavor and to the “mouth feel” of foods.
“Mouth feel” describes the texture, the smoothness that fats add to our 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 can, however, add extra calories that 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, United States 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. Because 1 gram of fat yields 9 calories, multiply the grams of fat by 9 to arrive at 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 USDA dietary recommendations for children ages 2 and 3 is that 30 to 35 percent of their food’s calories should come from fat. Fat 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 is usually from an animal source. Butter and lard are examples, however, coconut and palm kernel oils are plant oils high in saturated fat, as well.
The chemical composition of unsaturated fats, which are generally considered the more healthful fats, varies. They might, for example, be classed as a mono 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.
As you read the nutrition facts labels for foods, in addition to foods containing saturated and unsaturated fats you might find foods also containing trans fatty acids.
Trans-fatty acids, also known as trans fat, is an artery-clogging fat formed when vegetable oils are hardened into margarine or shortening. It is found in many other foods in addition to margarine and shortening. They can be found in cookies, crackers, doughnuts, pastries, icing, potato chips, french fries, fried chicken and microwave popcorn. Trans fats are also called hydrogenated fats.
Americans are advised to eat less that 300 miligram of cholesterol a day, as few trans fats as possible, and to limit saturated (solid) fats to less than 10 percent of total calories.
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 (such as canola oil) with a saturated fat (butter). 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, so you can choose how much of these foods 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 so you will know exactly what you’re eating and how it was prepared.
6. If eating out, choose menu items that are marked as healthy 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, that are at fault.
8. Look for recipes that call for oil, rather than 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 over whole milk or a graham cracker crust over a traditional piecrust 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 still hungry, opt for seconds in foods that are filling (fruits and vegetables), but low in calories and fat, rather than loading up on fat-laden foods. If you want cookies or birthday cake, make smaller cookies and eat one or two, rather than a plateful, or serve a smaller piece of cake.
Don’t expect to change your diet overnight. Gradual changes can lead to a health-promoting lifestyle and often are more long lasting than going cold turkey.
Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Extension in Washington County.