January 2, 2008
With the new year upon us, one common New Year's resolution
is to "eat better." While it can not only be challenging to
make the changes in one's diet, it can also be a challenge
to know what changes need to be made.
While "Eat a low fat diet" or "Eat less fat" may seem like
straightforward decisions, in this world of food choices,
hardly anything is as simple as it sounds. That said, as
people understand more about the fats in their diets,
labels become less confusing, and healthy choices are
easier to make.
"Fats are organic compounds that are made up of carbon,
hydrogen, and oxygen. They are a source of energy in foods.
Fats belong to a group of substances called lipids, and
come in liquid or solid form. All fats are combinations of
saturated and unsaturated fatty acids."
While it may seem like a good thing for people to eat
"non-fat" versions of the foods they like, some fat is
"Your body needs fat to function properly. Besides being an
energy source, fat is a nutrient used in the production of
cell membranes, as well as in several hormone-like
compounds called eicosanoids. These compounds help regulate
blood pressure, heart rate, blood vessel constriction,
blood clotting and the nervous system. In addition, dietary
fat carries fat-soluble vitamins -- vitamins A, D, E and K
-- from your food into your body. Fat also helps maintain
healthy hair and skin, protects vital organs, keeps your
body insulated, and provides a sense of fullness after
When it comes to fat, "quantity" is only part of the
equation; quality is equally, if not more, important.
"'Eat a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet.' Most of us have
heard this simple recommendation so often over the past two
decades that we can recite it in our sleep. Touted as a way
to lose weight and prevent cancer and heart disease, it's
no wonder much of the nation - and food producers - hopped
on board. Unfortunately, this simple message is now largely
out of date. ... What is becoming clearer and clearer is
that bad fats, meaning saturated and trans fats, increase
the risk for certain diseases while good fats, meaning
monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, lower the risk.
The key is to substitute good fats for bad fats."
Where it gets confusing for many is figuring out which are
the good fats, which are the bad fats, and which foods
contain each of these.
"Basically, trans fat is made when manufacturers add
hydrogen to vegetable oil--a process called hydrogenation.
Hydrogenation increases the shelf life and flavor stability
of foods containing these fats. Trans fat can be found in
vegetable shortenings, some margarines, crackers, cookies,
snack foods, and other foods made with or fried in
partially hydrogenated oils. Unlike other fats, the
majority of trans fat is formed when food manufacturers
turn liquid oils into solid fats like shortening and hard
margarine. A small amount of trans fat is found naturally,
primarily in some animal-based foods. Trans fat, like
saturated fat and dietary cholesterol, raises the LDL
cholesterol that increases your risk for CHD."
It is recommended that people remove all trans fat from
their diets while they keep the saturated fat to a minimum.
"Eating too much saturated fat is one of the major risk
factors for heart disease. A diet high in saturated fat
causes a soft, waxy substance called cholesterol to build
up in the arteries. Too much fat also increases the risk of
heart disease because of its high calorie content, which
increases the chance of becoming obese (another risk factor
for heart disease and some types of cancer). A large intake
of polyunsaturated fat may increase the risk for some types
of cancer. Reducing daily fat intake is not a guarantee
against developing cancer or heart disease, but it does
help reduce the risk factors."
While trans fat is predominantly found in processed foods,
saturated fat occurs naturally.
"Saturated fat is the main dietary cause of high blood
cholesterol. Saturated fat is found mostly in foods from
animals and some plants. Foods from animals include beef,
beef fat, veal, lamb, pork, lard, poultry fat, butter,
cream, milk, cheeses and other dairy products made from
whole and 2 percent milk. All of these foods also contain
dietary cholesterol. Foods from plants that contain
saturated fat include coconut, coconut oil, palm oil and
palm kernel oil (often called tropical oils), and cocoa
There are health concerns associated with trans fat and
saturated fat, but this does not mean that all fat should
be completely avoided.
"[Unsaturated fats] help to lower blood cholesterol if used
in place of saturated fats. However, unsaturated fats have
a lot of calories, so you still need to limit them. Most
(but not all!) liquid vegetable oils are unsaturated."
Good or bad, fat is a high calorie food. While every gram
of fat has the same amount of calories, some fats are
better than others (when eaten in moderation).
"Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are the two
unsaturated fats. They're found mainly in many fish, nuts,
seeds and oils from plants. Some examples of foods that
contain these fats include salmon, trout, herring,
avocados, olives, walnuts and liquid vegetable oils such as
soybean, corn, safflower, canola, olive and sunflower. Both
polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats may help lower
your blood cholesterol level when you use them in place of
saturated and trans fats in your diet. But a moderate
intake of all types of fat is best. Keep total fat intake
between 25 and 35 percent of calories, with most fats
coming from sources of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated
fatty acids such as fish, nuts and vegetable oils."
Moderation is key. It may seem logical that "since less fat
is good, no fat is better," but this is not the case.
People need fat in their diets in order to break down
fat-soluble vitamins and have the nutrients their bodies
need for proper development and growth.
Additionally, "Omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential
fatty acids. They are essential to human health but cannot
be manufactured by the body. For this reason, omega-3 fatty
acids must be obtained from food. Omega-3 fatty acids can
be found in fish, such as salmon, tuna, and halibut, other
marine life such as algae and krill, certain plants
(including purslane), and nut oils. Also known as
polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), omega-3 fatty acids
play a crucial role in brain function as well as normal
growth and development."
"Extensive research indicates that omega-3 fatty acids
reduce inflammation and help prevent risk factors
associated with chronic diseases such as heart disease,
cancer, and arthritis. These essential fatty acids are
highly concentrated in the brain and appear to be
particularly important for cognitive (brain memory and
performance) and behavioral function. In fact, infants who
do not get enough omega-3 fatty acids from their mothers
during pregnancy are at risk for developing vision and
nerve problems. Symptoms of omega-3 fatty acid deficiency
include extreme tiredness (fatigue), poor memory, dry skin,
heart problems, mood swings or depression, and poor
Questions of the Week:
Why is fat important? How can you know what kinds of fat
are in the foods you are eating? How can you determine how
much fat should be replaced and how much should be removed
from your diet? What can you do to reduce the amount of
"bad fats" in your diet while replacing those that should
be replaced with "good fats"? Does "low fat" mean healthy
(or healthier)? How might a "low fat" version be worse than
the "real" food?
Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.
I look forward to reading what you have to say.
Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum