Good fats, bad fats, too much fat? How do fats influence weight, heart disease, diabetes, heart burn and energy levels? Learn now.
“I don’t eat meat. I eat granola.” I hear this often. What do people expect me to say? “Well done! Meat is bad! I wouldn’t touch it.” Well, I enjoy a tasty meat dish, and for me, granola can be high in fat. This really bowls them over. I explain to them that a hamburger with 3 oz of lean ground beef contains 12 g of fat, whereas 1 cup of granola contains 18 g of fat. Beef also contains other nutrients like iron and zinc that are essential for good health. This doesn’t mean you should eat meat every day, it means include it in your meal plans. Registered Dietitians advocate smaller portions, not avoidance of red meat. Three ounces is very small, about 1/3 of the serving in a restaurant. We’ve just lost track and assume a nine-ounce serving is normal. Weigh your next portion of meat and find out for yourself.
A common question is: “How do I lower my fat intake below 30 percent?” “Should I aim for no fat?” “Where do I find fat?” “Which kind of fat is okay?” “How harmful is too much fat?” Everyone is hungry for knowledge, but the available conflicting information can be frustrating!
“OH GOOD, IT’S LOW IN FAT. I CAN EAT LOTS OF IT!”
Sometimes you’ll see a low-fat cookie or “health” bar and you think you can eat unlimited amounts. After all, they’re “low in fat.” Looking at the serving size, you may find that only half a cookie can be eaten for that number of fat grams. The serving size might be quite small, so eating the whole cookie will double your fat intake. Always check the serving size before calculating the number of fat grams you’re consuming.
Fat isn’t the only factor involved. Fat does supply more calories per gram than other sources of energy, but the total calorie intake is important too. Fat supplies nine calories per gram, carbohydrates and proteins four calories per gram and alcohol seven calories per gram. Even if you lower your fat intake, with a high intake of carbohydrate-containing foods and alcoholic drinks, you can still gain weight.
YOUR FAT TOOTH
Loving donuts, muffins, pastries, croissants and chocolates, doesn’t mean you have a sweet tooth; it means you have a fat tooth. These foods are sweet but are particularly high in fat. If it were a sweet tooth you had, you would be eating jelly babies, jelly and sherbet. Fat in food is so alluring because fat gives food a certain taste and texture that you get used to. It’s called a “mouth-feel.” Fat makes foods slide smoothly in your mouth and down your throat. Compare the experience of eating chocolate to that of chewing jellybeans. Now that you know it’s a fat tooth (with flavor), how do you get rid of it?
“I was a junk food addict,” Clara said. “You said I wouldn’t be able to handle high fat foods after three weeks. Yesterday, I pinched two chips off my son’s plate, and couldn’t eat more.” What a revelation! She wanted to eat more but felt too full. She never knew that this would actually happen to her. Every now and then she reverted back to her old habits and ordered a high-fat meal. She would develop a dreadful, nauseous feeling half way through the meal, because her body can no longer digest that quantity of fat. Her body has formed new habits. This reminded her brain that she had changed her habits, which makes it much easier to keep to a lower-fat plan.
The reason people regain their weight is they do not listen to their body. Although their body feels uncomfortable, they force it to consume more foods. This lack of control is often due to depression, anger or anxiety, which ignore the painful feeling of fullness. Continually consuming high fat-foods, and developing the uncomfortable feeling, becomes a new habit. And so the fat tooth is back. Old habits have returned. You need Low-Fat Action!
Consciously choose low-fat foods for three weeks. At mid-morning, instead of grabbing a muffin, choose a banana. In the afternoon, snack on yogurt and fruit instead of cookies. In the late evening, while watching television, substitute potato chips with eight soda crackers, and chew slowly. Always have these types of low-fat foods around. After three weeks of low-fat snacking, test yourself. Eat a muffin. How do you feel? Dreadful? Good - you’re getting to know your capacity for fat.
SHOULD I AIM FOR NO FAT?
No! What a ghastly thought. Fat adds taste and variety to the diet and is an essential nutrient. Fat is necessary for the supply of essential fatty acids, the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, as an insulator and to supply energy - don’t go fat-free.
Our problem is that we eat too much fat. The easiest way to change is to know how much fat to eat per day. Total fat intake per day as an adult should be less than 60 grams for females and 80 grams for males. To lose weight, lower your fat intake to 45 grams and 65 grams respectively.
For example, for lunch order a hamburger and fries (45 grams fat) and a large ice cream cone (24 grams fat). Without having anything else to eat, you have consumed 69 g of fat - more than the recommended daily allowance for a woman, all in one sitting! This doesn’t mean you can never eat these foods; sometimes you crave hamburgers and fries. Just don’t make a habit of it, and include lower fat foods for the rest of the week.
The easiest way for me to control my fat intake is to have a hamburger when I really feel like it, and have fries on another occasion. This only happens once every few weeks when my children or friends order and the smell is irresistible.
The following is an example of a low-fat day for women who want to lose weight. Men can increase portions to reach 60 grams fat:
(Fat grams are behind each food item)
1/2 cup high-fiber cereal: 1; 1-cup 1% milk: 2; 1/2 banana: 0
1 cup homemade pea soup: 3; 2 slices whole wheat bread: 1; 2 slices turkey breast (2 oz): 2; 1 tbsp low-fat mayonnaise: 5; green salad: 0; 2 tsp extra light olive oil: 10; 2 tbsp vinegar plus herbs: 0; 1 apple: 0
1 cup non-fat latte: 0; 6 mini-carrots:0; 2 Tbsp nuts: 10; 2 Tbsp dried cranberries: 0
3 oz. salmon: 9; 1 small baked potato: 0; 2 Tbs. low fat sour cream: 2; 1 cup broccoli: 0; 1⁄2 cup carrots: 0; 1 cup strawberries: 0
175 ml fat-free yogurt: 0
TOTAL: 44 fat grams
The fat content is approximately 44 grams for women, which would lead to weight loss and the food looks delicious!
WHERE DO I FIND FAT?
Fats are found in animal sources (such as butter, fish or meat) and vegetable sources (such as oils, avocado and nuts). Sometimes it’s obvious. For example, fat is visible on certain meats such as chops.
When it comes to chicken, 3 oz. white chicken without skin has 3 g fat; with skin it has 7 grams fat. A recent study demonstrated that removing the skin of the chicken before cooking does not significantly reduce fat content. Cooking with the skin on reduces cooking time and increases flavor, moisture, tenderness and overall acceptability of chicken. Don’t make low-fat meals a burden or an unpleasant experience - cook chicken with the skin on and then discard the skin before consuming. Most of my clients know about avoiding chicken skin. It’s when they stop caring that they start eating it, and feel as if they’re purposely being destructive. It’s a rebellious feeling. If that happens, make sure your next day is low in fat.
Fats are also used in baked goods. The ingredient list on product labels will give you a clue to the type of fat and fat content of the food item. The first ingredient listed is always the largest, in quantity, by weight. If a fat is listed near the first ingredient, the fat content of that product will be high.
“I went to an East Indian restaurant for lunch. I know their foods are, overall, high in fat so I chose small portions. How do I know if there’s fat in the meal?” The easiest way is to listen to your body. If you feel sluggish and stuffed, even a half hour after the meal (when digestion is taking place), then your meal contained "hidden" fats in the sauces. The next time you order a meal, which contains unknown sauces, either share with a friend or take leftovers home. That way you won’t feel as though you’ve wasted food, and you can eat the food later if hungry.
There are also hidden fats in gravies, salad dressings, chips, cream-based pasta dishes, lasagna, marbled meat, cheese, milk, baked goods, snack foods, croissants, donuts, chocolate, nuts, seeds, granola and cream.
Tip: In order to lower the fat content of ground beef by up to 35%, cook it and drain off the fat. Even better, rinse the cooked ground beef with hot water. The fat content will then be reduced by an additional 25 to 30%.
THE MYTHS OF HEALTHY SNACKS
“I aim to be healthy so I eat a bran muffin every day.” Yet a “healthy” muffin can contain a whopping 12 grams of fat and only 2.5 grams fiber? Sorry, muffin lovers, but a bran muffin is really a fat muffin.
Other foods can also “sound” healthy. We assume they’re good for us. Carrot cake, apple pie, banana bread and cheesecake have good foods in their title, but are high-fat foods and intake should be minimal.
WHICH KIND OF FAT IS OKAY?
In summary: Saturated and Trans = bad. Polyunsaturated = good. Monounsaturated and omega 3 = very good.
Look at the Nutrition Information panel on a cracker or cereal box. Listed are four types of Fat: Saturated, Trans, Polyunsaturated and Monounsaturated. These four types of fat and Cholesterol content influence our cholesterol levels. Because we want to lower our cholesterol levels, we need to understand the link.
Saturated fat is known as the “bad” fat - it raises blood cholesterol levels, so keep intake of this fat low. Saturated fats are found mainly in animal products such as milk, meat and butter, as well as in baked goods. Choose skim or 1% milk and lean cuts of meat, and use butter sparingly. Fats to limit are lard and butterfat. Chocolate, cakes and cookies are also a high source of saturated fats so limit consumption of these foods. Decrease intake of all fats, and replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats such as canola, olive, safflower, sunflower and corn oils.
Trans fats should also be avoided. These are formed from vegetable oils when processed. Trans-fatty acids are also considered “bad” as they increase cholesterol levels.
Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are better fats that lower blood cholesterol levels. As mentioned above, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are found mainly in vegetable oils. However, some vegetable oils are high in saturated fats (tropical oils such as coconut and palm oils). Try to avoid these.
Tip: You can lose 4.5 g fat per cup milk if you switch from 2% to skim milk.
“What do you recommend, butter or margarine?”
I recommend lowering your overall intake from all sources of fat. When it comes to butter or margarine, I suggest No Trans Fat soft margarine. Butter is high in saturated fats and margarine in brick form contains hydrogenated fats, both of which should be limited. With soy margarines, read the labels to be sure they do not contain trans fats.
“How many eggs can I eat”?
I went to lunch with a friend who had been avoiding eggs for two years because of all the negative press eggs had been getting. (His cholesterol level was normal.) I ordered a boiled egg foccaccia sandwich. It was toasted and had vegetables in it and a scraping of mayonnaise. I explained to him that he only had to concern himself with his total cholesterol intake over the week and that although egg yolks are high in cholesterol, their saturated fat content is only 1.5 grams, and so eating five eggs a week is just fine. The yolks of the eggs also contain protein, iron, zinc, phosphorous and many vitamins. He then had a bite of my sandwich and finished it. “Wow, that’s delicious.” A week later he told me he had his first omelet with whole eggs and loved it. He now has the confidence to include a few eggs a week in his meals and feels liberated.
“Should I avoid fatty fish?”
Don’t avoid any foods you love; just be aware of portion sizes. If, in the past, you ate 6-oz. salmon steaks, which is a large portion, try eating 4-oz. steaks. I encourage my clients to include fish, any kind, in their diet at least three times a week. Fish is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which benefit the heart. Be extra careful with your portions of high-fat fish like trout, herring, mackerel, salmon and sardines. Lower fat fish types include haddock, shrimp and tuna canned in water. There is no reason to avoid shrimp and crayfish, which are high in cholesterol as they contain mainly unsaturated fats, including heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, just don’t serve them with butter.
A study in the medical journal Lancet, found that lower cholesterol levels saves lives. If the LDL (“low down lousy” or bad) cholesterol levels were lowered by 35 percent in this study group, the coronary death rate was lowered 42 percent and the overall death rate is 30 percent lower than it was among those people who did not lower their LDL cholesterol levels.
HOW HARMFUL IS TOO MUCH FAT?
When I was a dietetic intern, I remember seeing to the meals of a wealthy elderly gentleman. He was funny and interesting. I enjoyed chatting with him on ward rounds. He had terminal colon cancer and had recently come out of surgery. Once, he said to me “Look after yourself, because all the money in the world can’t buy you good health.” It was too late for him to make a change in his life, but he wanted to pass on his words of wisdom. It must be noted that colon, breast and prostate cancer, as well as heart disease and diabetes, have been linked to a diet high in fat.
Too much fat intake leads to many health problems, such as weight gain, increased risk of diseases and heartburn. There are also negative social and psychological effects involved.
In North America, people have decreased their fat intake, but obesity has increased. Quantities and calories, not just fat grams, count. According to the NHANES III survey, the fat intake of Americans is down from 36% to 34% but calories are 200 more each day.
In the United States, 60 percent of the population is overweight or obese. How many members of your family have one or more of the following complications as a result of excess weight: heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, gallstones, or colon, breast or prostrate cancer? If you are overweight (BMI above 27), your risk of getting one or all of these diseases is increased twofold.
“I feel so healthy so why should I watch my fat intake?” Many people feel healthy with extra weight but want to lose it just to look good. Although it is important to look good, you should make every effort to decrease the risk of contracting a serious disease later in life. My most diligent clients are those that have had a heart attack, stroke or diabetes. They’ve had a wake-up call.
If you are diagnosed with any type of nutrition-related disease, set up an appointment with a dietitian immediately: a nutrition professional can and will set you on the path to nutritional health.