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Facts About Fat: Part 1 of 2—Good Fats

By H.K. Jones

This is the first in a two-part series on fat, one of the most misrepresented, mismarketed, and misunderstood of food substances. Check out Facts About Fat: Part 2 of 2—Bad Fats for a look at the unhealthy fats your doctor keeps warning you about.

Some Big Fat Trivia
"Fat-free cookies!" the boxes at the supermarket used to scream. How 1990s. Now they scream "Zero grams of trans fats!" Who's right? Who's wrong? And most important of all, how will your fat intake affect your own waistline?

To get you started on the road to understanding the importance of fat in your diet, let's begin with a little quiz:

  1. True or false? Fat makes you fat.
    False. Excess calories make you fat. And fat is calorie dense, so people who eat a lot of fat tend to take in more calories than they burn, leading to excess calories that their body turns into, well, fat. That said, it's not the fat itself that causes the weight gain. It doesn't matter if your calories come from pasta (carbohydrates), chicken (protein), or butter (fat)—if you eat too many calories you're still going to gain weight.
  2. True or false? Eating fat-free foods is the best way to lose weight.
    False. Your body needs fat to stay healthy. The best way to lose weight is to eat a lower-calorie mix of carbohydrates, proteins, and good fats from whole-food sources, and combine that with a great exercise plan. Rather than eliminating fat from your diet, you should choose the best types of fat and enjoy them in moderation.
  3. True or false: Incorporating "good" fat into a healthy diet can be tricky.
    True. Including the right amount of fat, not to mention the right types of fat, into the diet can be challenging.
Chewing the Fat: The Basics
Fats are one of four substances in food that provide calories—protein, carbohydrates, and alcohol are the other three. Your body needs fat to function. Besides being a valuable energy source, fat aids in blood clotting and helps regulate your blood pressure, heart rate, and nervous system. It is also necessary for the transportation and absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins—A, D, E, and K. Plus it tastes great. And there's a lot to be said for satiating your cravings.

That said, a diet too high in fat can increase your risk of cardiac failure, high blood cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity. Fatty diets and obesity go hand in hand, because fat is a calorie-dense substance. Fats provides nine calories per gram, while carbohydrates and proteins supply only four calories per gram. (Alcohols provide seven—yet another reason to keep your boozing to a minimum). So in addition to increased health risks, a diet that includes a lot of fatty foods can also result in a lot more of you. A little more you is cute; a lot more puts you at risk for serious obesity-related health problems and an earlier death.

Many foods contain a mixture of unhealthy saturated and healthy unsaturated (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated) fatty acids. For example, butter contains some unsaturated fat, but a larger percentage of the total fat is saturated. Canola oil, on the other hand, has a high percentage of monounsaturated fat and contains smaller amounts of polyunsaturated and saturated fats. And there's also trans fat. Small amounts of trans fat occur naturally in meat and dairy products, but that's not the real problem. To make foods stay fresh on the shelf or to turn liquid oils into solids (turning oil into margarine, for example), food manufacturers hydrogenate (add hydrogen to) polyunsaturated oils, creating unhealthy trans fats. More on those next week in the follow-up to this article.

Good Fats: What They Are, Where to Find Them
Monounsaturated fats can lower your risk of heart disease if used in place of saturated fats by lowering your overall blood cholesterol. Foods rich in these fats include olive, peanut, and canola oils. High amounts of monounsaturated fats can also be found in nuts and avocados.

Another "good" fat: polyunsaturated. When used in place of saturated fats, polyunsaturated fats help lower blood cholesterol levels and reduce the amount of cholesterol deposits in your arteries. You can find polyunsaturated fats in vegetable oils such as cottonseed, safflower, corn, and soy oil, as well as in seeds and nuts.

One type of polyunsaturated fat, omega-3, may be especially important to include in your diet. Current research suggests that omega-3 fats help lower blood cholesterol, reduce the risk of heart attack, and protect against irregular heartbeats. Eating seafood, particularly fatty cold-water fish like salmon and herring, two times a week will help ensure you are getting enough of this super fat. Fish not your thing? Add some fish oil to your diet. Look for fish oils that supplies 500 to 1000 mg of EPA and DHA combined (EPA and DHA are the key fats found in fish).

Daily Fat Guidelines
Follow these tips to help ensure you get the right amount of fat and the right types of fat into your diet:
  1. Stay under 30: Limit your fat intake to 30 percent of your daily calories or less. For example, if you eat a 2000-calorie diet, you should consume about 65 grams of total fat per day. Need help calculating your daily caloric intake? Learn how to Calculate Your Calorie Requirements.
  2. Don't over saturate: Limit your intake of foods high in saturated fats such as red meats and dairy, and focus on foods whose primary fat content comes from monounsaturated and/or polyunsaturated fats. In general, less than 30 percent of your fat intake should come from saturated or trans fats.
  3. Eat your greens (and yellows, reds, and tans...): Balance high-fat foods with lower-fat dairy products, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
  4. Go canola: At home use canola oil or olive oil as your main oil, with others thrown in for taste.
  5. Be a squirrel: Sprinkle nuts and seeds on your salads. They contain a lot of high-quality protein and good fats, and they taste great. Yum!
  6. Cure your cheese-a-holic: Limit your cheese intake; cheese is packed with saturated fats (Would you eat a stick of butter plain? No. But you'll eat a round of brie in one sitting, right?). Look for great-tasting alternatives such as avocado, instead of cheese, for your sandwiches and snacks.
  7. Go deep: Eat seafood at least twice at week or take fish oil with no more than one gram of combined DHA and EPA daily.

  8. About H.K. Jones: H. K. Jones is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, and nutrition professional based in Washington, D.C.