I often discuss the importance of eating a balanced diet. Today, I want to tell you about one important component of a healthy eating plan that is often misunderstood. I’m talking about dietary fat. If you are struggling to maintain a healthy diet or lose weight, fat is just as necessary as lean protein, whole grains, fruit and vegetables. You do not need to cut all fats from your diet, as long as you avoid the fat that is truly harmful.
Healthy eating gurus often say there are no “bad” foods, so you should eat the things you like in moderation. There is, however, one critical exception to that rule—processed trans fat. Trans fat is made when food manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oil. This process called hydrogenation turns liquid fats into solids. Using this fat to make snack foods extends the shelf life of these products and keeps their flavor stable longer.
Trans fat is cheap, simple to produce and lasts a long time. It gives food made from inexpensive ingredients a pleasing texture and flavor. Restaurants and institutions often use trans fat for deep frying because it can be used repeatedly in commercial fryers. Fried foods and processed snack foods are the most likely to contain trans fat. Mass-produced doughnuts, piecrusts, cakes, cookies, potato chips, salad dressing and crackers may contain trans fat. French fries, breaded chicken and other fast food meals are often loaded with trans fat. It may even be used in bread and pizza crust.
Trans fat can damage your health, increasing your risk for coronary heart disease. This fat raises levels of LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, in your blood. As if that wasn’t enough, it also lowers levels of HDL, or “good” cholesterol.
Coronary heart disease kills over 500,000 Americans each year, making it one of the leading causes of death in this country. Due to these detrimental effects, the Food & Drug Administration passed a law in 2006 requiring manufacturers to list the amount of trans fat in their products. If you look at any nutrition label today, you’ll see the amount of trans fat clearly stated.
How Much Fat Should I Eat?
When it comes to trans fat, the American Heart Association recommends that it comprises no more than 1% of your daily calories. Small amounts of trans fat occur naturally in some animal and dairy products like beef, lamb and butterfat. Unlike manufactured trans fat, research has not shown that these natural types of trans fat raise LDL cholesterol, although evidence of their effects is inconclusive.
Because most of us reach our trans fat limit through natural meat and dairy, there is not room for processed trans fat in our diets. I recommend that all my patients avoid processed foods containing any amount of trans fat. Always check nutrition labels and eat at restaurants that advertise themselves as trans fat free. Since the 2006 labeling law, many large food manufacturers took all the trans fat out of their products. Many fast food chains, such as Kentucky Fried Chicken, followed suit. If you are unsure, look at the label or check a restaurant’s web site. If they are trans fat free, it is likely that they want their customers to be aware of their efforts.
The Good Fats
Fat is an important nutrient for growth and maintaining good health. It provides energy and helps the body absorb other essential nutrients, like vitamins A, D, E and K. Replacing the trans fat in your diet with mono- and poly-unsaturated fats is the key to better health.
Monounsaturated fat is found in olive oil, avocadoes and canola oil, and polyunsaturated fat in soybean oil, corn oil, sunflower oil and foods like nuts. These fats do not raise bad cholesterol, and may benefit your health. Although saturated fat is not as harmful as trans fat, it raises LDL cholesterol and should be consumed in moderation. If you are watching your cholesterol, you should keep saturated fat to 5% or less of your daily calories.
Other types of good fat include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. These fats may improve heart health and fight inflammation. They are found in fatty fish, like salmon, sardines and mackerel, as well as walnuts and flax seeds. Since it may be difficult to add these fats to your diet everyday, supplements are an excellent solution.
To determine your individual needs, I recommend a session with a nutritionist. Since fat is an essential nutrient, you need a plan that incorporates it in healthy ways. Good fats like olive oil, nuts and avocadoes make salads and lean meats taste better, which helps you stick to your diet. The more you learn about fats, the more you will enjoy eating for optimal health.
Photo Credit: Suat Eman