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Facts About Fat: Part 2 of 2—Bad Fats

By H.K. Jones

This is the second in a two-part series on fat, one of the most misrepresented, mismarketed, and misunderstood of food substances. If you haven't already done so, check out Facts About Fat: Part 1 of 2—Good Fats for a look at fats in general and an overview of the “good” fats that contribute to a healthier you. And now on to those naughty, naughty “bad” fats…

An Important Reminder: Fats Are Essential to Your Health
Our bodies need fats. Fats help nutrient absorption and nerve transmission, and aid in regulating your blood pressure and heart rate. However, when consumed in excess amounts, fats—the most caloric of food substances—contribute to weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, and certain types of cancer.

That said, while eating a lot of any type of fat will pack on the calories (and the pounds), all fats are not created equal. Current research suggests that so-called "bad" fats—namely saturated and trans fats—increase the risk for certain diseases, while their “good” fat cousins—monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats—actually lower the risk. Your key to healthy fat intake is not to eliminate fat from your diet entirely as some diets unwisely suggest; rather, you should moderate your consumption of foods high in bad fats and replace them where appropriate with good fats.

Bad Fat Number One: Saturated Fat
When you think bad fat, think saturated. Saturated fats increase your risk of heart disease by raising LDL (bad) blood cholesterol levels in your body. Saturated fat deposits plaque in the coronary arteries, which is bad news for you and your heart. Plaque deposits lead to blocked arteries, and blocked arteries may lead you straight into your local hospital cardiac care unit.

You probably already know that saturated fat can be found in foods made from animal products, including beef, cream, butter, whole milk, and cheese. What you might not know is that saturated fats can also show up in plant foods such as tropical oils (coconut, palm, and palm kernel) and cocoa butter. And while you can probably imagine reducing your intake of coconut oil, cutting back on other foods that contain saturated fats—think pizza, hamburgers, steaks, tacos, cheese, ice cream, and so on—may take a lot more willpower.

Bad Fat Number Two: Trans Fat
The new buzzword in nutrition circles is trans. Why? Studies have shown that trans fat is as bad for your health and heart as saturated fat. Not only does trans fat raise LDL (bad) cholesterol, it also lowers HDL (good) cholesterol—the worst possible combination. In response to these findings and recent research that suggests many Americans are now downing far more trans fats than they should, the Food and Drug Administration recently passed a regulation requiring food manufacturers to list trans fat on all nutrition labels so that consumers can identify—and hopefully avoid—this heart-clogging substance.

So where does this nasty stuff come from? Small amounts of trans fat occur naturally in meat and dairy products, but that's not the real problem. The real problem is the manufactured food industry. To make foods stay fresh on the shelf or to turn liquid oils into solids (turning oil into margarine, for instance), food manufacturers hydrogenate (add hydrogen to) polyunsaturated oils, which turns them into trans fats. Products like margarine, shortening, and cooking oils, as well as foods made with them, constitute a major source of trans fat in American diets. Fried fast foods and restaurant foods (many restaurants cook in partially hydrogenated oil) such as French fries and doughnuts may also be high in trans fat.

As health officials across the country condemn a rise in bad eating habits and an increase in heart disease and other diet-related ailments, anti-trans-fat legislation (in New York, Philadelphia, and Montgomery County, Maryland so far) has been passed banning partially hydrogenated oil use in restaurants, supermarket bakeries, delis, and so on. While it may be banned in your neck of the woods soon, you should probably just try to avoid too much of those foods on your own rather than waiting for the long arm of the law to do it for you.

Easy Tips For Keeping Bad Fats at Bay
So you should never eat a hamburger or fries again, right? Wrong. Like all things in life, regulating your fat intake is all about moderation. See the tips below for keeping your bad-fat consumption in check without depriving yourself of great-tasting food and healthful fats.

  1. The 30 Percent of 30 Rule: Limit your fat intake to 30 percent of your daily calories or less. For example, if you eat a 2000-calorie diet, that's around 65 grams of total fat per day. More important, no more than 30 percent of those grams (20 grams for a 2000-calorie diet) should come from saturated or trans fat.
  2. Skip the Tropics: Avoid using oils that are high in saturated fats and/or trans fats such as coconut oil, palm oil, or vegetable shortening. Instead, use oils that are low in saturated fats and high in mono- and polyunsaturated fats such as canola oil, olive oil, and flax seed oil.
  3. Stay Away from Processed Junk: Minimize your use of commercially packaged foods, which may be high in trans fats. Always read labels to look for trans-fat-free alternatives. Most important, cook as often as possible using whole, unprocessed foods; trust us, they’re better for you!
  4. Cut the Fat: Trim visible fats and skins from meat products to reduce your intake of saturated fats, and in general buy leaner cuts of meat.
  5. Don’t Be a Cheese: Limit your intake of cheese (see the 30 percent of 30 percent rule above), which is high in saturated fat, and in general use lower-fat versions of dairy products such as one-percent or skim milk instead of whole milk.
So enjoy those fats, and remember: Moderation, moderation, moderation.

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