With terms like good fats and bad fats, conditions like high cholesterol and high triglycerides, low fat diets, and essential fatty acids, fat can be very confusing. Fat is found naturally in many foods and is an essential part of our diet. We are naturally inclined to enjoy the taste of fat, as it was a good source of energy for our ancestors and is essential for brain development in infants and toddlers.
However, too much fat can lead to a variety of health problems, especially if you are eating a lot of the wrong kind of fat.
So what is the wrong kind of fat? To keep it simple, saturated and trans fats, have both been linked to heart disease. Eating a diet high in these types of fat has been linked to high cholesterol levels in the blood, which is a risk factor for heart disease and heart attack. These types of fats are typically solid at room temperature, like animal fats, butter, stick margarine. Whole milk also has saturated fat, which is why it is recommended for most people to consume only low fat dairy.
Unsaturated fats are actually important for your body, but in moderation. Unsaturated fat is a term used for monounsaturated, omega-3 polyunsaturated, and omega 6 polyunsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats are actually good for your heart. These types of fats are found in oils, nuts, seeds, avocados and fatty fish, like salmon or trout.
Though unsaturated fats may be good for you, like anything, moderation is important. A gram of fat has 9 calories, while a gram of carbohydrate or protein both have only 4 calories. If you keep everything else in your diet the same, reducing fat in your diet will cut calories, hence the 90’s low fat diet craze. The problem with many low fat diets was that people did not reduce the types of foods they were eating that had fat, they ate specialty low fat baked goods and snacks, which often had calories from added sugars and starches.
A healthy low fat diet should have lots of plant based foods. Eating a lot of fruits and vegetables, without adding much or any fat, is a great way to reduce not only fat, but the harmful effects saturated fat will have on your body. Eating meatless meals more often, with legumes as a source of protein, is especially helpful to eat less saturated fat. Soluble fiber helps to reduce cholesterol. Of course, not adding much fat to your food helps to limit fat in your diet. Baking, boiling and roasting food requires less fat than frying. And remember our bodies need some fat, so when you are using fat, use the needed unsaturated fats, like vegetable oils to cook with. When you do choose meat or dairy, choose leaner cuts or low fat options and from pasture raised sources.
Meat and dairy, in their basic forms, are certainly not the worst offenders for unhealthy fats. Be very cautious with processed foods. Many are made with hydrogenated oils or trans fats. Some of the highest fat foods can be baked goods and sweets, as well as premade meals or fast foods. Be aware of serving size, as one serving may not appear to be too high in fat, but a few servings will reach the upper limit of the fat you can eat for the day. An example is one serving in a pint of ice cream may have 40 percent, or 8 grams of saturated fat, which is a lot. It is even worse if you eat the pint (all four servings) and get 160 percent of the daily value of saturated fat, obviously way too much.
To keep it simple, eat more fruits and vegetables, choose low fat and lean dairy, eat less processed foods and when you do eat them, compare labels. Fat certainly is not all bad, just be aware of what sources your dietary fat is coming from and do not eat too much, especially trans and saturated fats.
Jordy Kivett is a nutrition educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Clinton County. For more information, contact her at 561-7450.