Fat Facts: Essential Fatty Acids, Saturated Fat, and Trans Fat

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After so many years of being told otherwise, the idea that fat is good for you is hard to swallow, but true. Are you eating the right type of fat? There are good fats and bad fats to look for in your diet.

Fat Facts: What’s Good About Fat

Fat is the target of much scorn, yet it serves up health benefits you can’t live without.

Fat supplies essential fatty acids (EFAs). “Your body is incapable of producing the EFAs, known as linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid, so it must derive them from food,” explains Wahida Karmally DrPH, RD, professor of nutrition at Columbia Universityand director of Saturated fat found in meats, butter, cream, or ice cream, and other foods with animal fat.

  • Trans fat, a man-made fat found in some margarines or packaged baked.
  • Here are some examples of healthy daily fat allowances.

    1,800 Calories a Day

    • 40 to 70 grams of total fat
    • 14 grams or less of saturated fat
    • 2 grams or less of trans fat

    2,200 Calories a Day

    • 49 to 86 grams of total fat
    • 17 grams or less of saturated fat
    • 3 grams or less of trans fat

    2,500 Calories a Day

    • 56 to 97 grams of total fat
    • 20 grams or less of saturated fat
    • 3 grams or less of trans fat.

    MyPyramid.gov helps you determine a daily calorie level right for you. If you want to lose weight, eat less than what MyPyramid suggests for your age, gender, and physical activity level, but don’t eat less than 1,600 calories a day.

    The Facts on Unsaturated Fats

    Dietary fat is categorized as saturated or unsaturated. Unsaturated fats — monounsaturated and polyunsaturated — should be the dominant type of fat in a balanced diet, because they reduce the risk of clogged arteries.

    While foods tend to contain a mixture of fats, monounsaturated fat is the primary fat found in:

    • olive, canola, and sesame oils
    • avocado
    • nuts, such as almonds, cashews, and pistachios; peanuts and peanut butter

    Polyunsaturated fat is prevalent in:

    The Facts on Omega-3 Fats

    When it comes to good-for-you fat, seafood stands out. Seafood harbors omega-3 fats called DHA (docosahexanoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentanoic acid), unsaturated fats considered central to a child’s brain development and eyesight, and for heart health.

    Omega-3 fats are linked to lower levels of blood (fats), reduced risk of clots that block the flow of blood to the heart and brain, and a normal heart beat, among other benefits.

    Seafood contains preformed omega-3 fats, the type the body prefers. Adults and children can make DHA and EPA from the essential fat alpha-linolenic acid, found in foods such as walnuts and flax, but experts say less than 10% is actually converted. Fatty, cold-water fish, such as salmon, sardines, and tuna are rich in preformed omega-3s.

    The Facts on Unhealthy Saturated Fat

    When eaten to excess, saturated fat contributes to clogged arteries that block blood flow, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke. Saturated fat is worse than dietary cholesterol when it comes to raising blood cholesterol levels, a risk factor for heart disease and .

    Saturated fat is concentrated in fatty meats, and full-fat dairy foods including cheese, ice cream, and whole milk. Animal foods supply most saturated fat in our diet. But highly saturated vegetable fats such as coconut oil, palm, palm kernel oil, and cocoa butter are also unhealthy. They’re widely used in packaged foods including milk chocolate, cookies, crackers, and snack chips.

    There’s no dietary requirement for saturated fat because your body produces all that it needs. Yet, there’s no need to completely avoid foods with saturated fat in the name of good health. Foods such as meat, cheese, and milk pack a multitude of nutrients such as protein, vitamins, and minerals. Just try to keep saturated fat to less than 7% of all the fat you eat.

    The Facts on Trans Fat: A Bad Fat in a League of Its Own

    Like saturated fat, trans fat contributes to clogged arteries. Even worse, it’s been linked to certain cancers, including and colorectal, in population studies.

    Researchers from Harvard School of Public Health have estimated that eliminating trans fats from the American diet could prevent about a quarter of a million heart attacks and related deaths every year.

    Trace amounts of naturally-occurring trans fat are present in fatty meats and full-fat dairy foods. But, by far, most of the trans fat we eat is the end product of hydrogenation. Hydrogenation (the addition of hydrogen) converts oil into a firmer, tastier product with a longer shelf life. In the process, some of the unsaturated fat in the oil becomes saturated.

    Partially hydrogenated fat — trans fat — is gradually being removed from most packaged foods. But it’s still found in some stick margarine, shortening, fast food, cookies, crackers, granola bars, and microwave popcorn.

    There is no dietary requirement for trans fat, although it’s nearly impossible to completely avoid. It helps to read nutrition food labels, but there’s a hitch.

    “Even when the food label lists the trans fat content of a processed food as zero, a serving may contain up to nearly half a gram of trans fat by law,” says Karmally.

    Small amounts of some “trans-fat-free” foods can really add up. For example, a box of cookies labeled “0 trans fats” could actually have half a gram per serving. Thus four cookies could contain close to 2 grams of trans fat — the upper limit suggested for many adults.

    3 Easy Ways to Avoid Bad Fats

    Here are three simple ways to avoid bad fats, including trans fat:

    1. Avoid packaged foods when possible. Instead, choose whole foods, or foods you make at home. For example, you can make your own macaroni and cheese from scratch, or your own flavored rice mixes.

    2. Eat lean sources of protein, low-fat dairy foods, whole grains, legumes — such as garbanzo beans and black beans — and fruits and vegetables.

    3. Use healthy oils such as olive, canola, and sunflower oil, and small amounts of tub margarine for cooking and flavoring foods.

    “It takes more than counting fat grams to protect your health,” Lichtenstein says.