A Guide to Making Sense of Dietary Fat
On your next trip to the grocery store prepare yourself to read all food labels carefully and to seriously consider everything that goes into your shopping cart. Create a shopping list and divide your list into columns for “Best,” “Better,” “Good,” “Least Desirable,” and “Infrequent Foods.” As you refine your sense of dietary fat, here are key points to bear in mind:
- Shopping for groceries. Don’t be bombarded with gratuitous grams of saturated fats and empty grams of trans fats. Read and decipher food labels carefully so that you know exactly what types of fat a food item contains and how much fat it will contribute to your overall fat intake. For snacks and daily eating, gravitate toward foods that are lowest in or absent of harmful trans fats. Restrict other foods to occasional usage based upon their fat content. For example, if selecting prepared foods, choose the ones without high-fat sauces in favor of adding your own flavorings. If selecting precooked meats, avoid those that are fried, coated, or prepared in high-fat sauces. A popular and healthy precooked meat food choice is the rotisserie chicken that most supermarkets carry. When selecting meats be aware of the need to compare different cuts—notice their fat content, color, and marbling. Higher-fat meats tend to have whiter fat marbled throughout. Choose lean cuts and white meat as these are lower in saturated fat. Always choose plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, as their phytosterols are a good competitor for cholesterol. Keep a collection of nuts in your freezer that can be added to your salads, stir-fry, one-dish foods, soups, desserts, and yogurts.
- Appearance. Saturated and trans fats are not good for you and must be placed in your “Least Desirable” column because they increase cholesterol levels and put you at risk for heart disease. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are better choices to replace these undesirable fats. The key in identifying the “Best” or “Better” fats from the “Least Desirable” fats while you shop is based upon appearance. When choosing fats remember that saturated fats and trans fats are solid at room temperature; think of butter. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature; think of vegetable oil.
- Try to eliminate as much trans fat as possible from your food selections. Avoid commercially baked goods and fast foods. Make these your “Infrequent Foods.”
- Choose unsaturated fats. Fatty fish, walnuts, flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, and canola oil all have good health benefits and should be on the “Best,” “Better,” and “Good” fat lists. They each provide essential omega-3 fatty acids necessary for overall body health. To derive the most benefit from including these foods, do not add them to an existing diet full of fat. Use these to replace the “Least Desirable” fats that are being removed from the diet.
- Limit saturated fat intake. Reduce red meat consumption, processed meats, and whole-fat dairy products. To reduce full-fat dairy items try their low-fat or nonfat counterparts such as mozzarella cheese.
- Low fat does not equal healthy. Remember, a fat-free label does not provide you with a license to consume all the calories you desire. There will be consequences to your weight and your overall health. Common replacements for fat in many fat-free foods are refined carbohydrates, sugar, and calories. Too much of these ingredients can also cause health problems. Choose and consume wisely.
- A “better-fat” diet will successfully support weight loss. While cutting “Least Desirable” fat calories are vital to weight loss, remember that “Better” fats are filling and just a handful of nuts can curb an appetite to prevent overeating.
- Consume omega-3 fats each day. For optimal health and disease prevention include a moderate serving of fish, walnuts, ground flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, or soybean oil in your diet every day.
- How much saturated fat is too much? Your goal is to keep your intake of saturated fat to no more than 10 percent of your total dietary calories on a daily basis. Thus, it is important to learn to reduce the intake of foods high in saturated fat. High-fat foods can be consumed but they must fall within the overall goal for a person’s fat allowance for the day.
- Home cooking. Limit the use of saturated fats in home preparation of meals. Instead of butter try spreads made from unsaturated oils such as canola or olive oils and the use of cooking sprays. Couple this with the use of herbs and spices to add flavor. Avoid using high-fat meat gravies, cheese, and cream sauces. Limit adding extras to foods such as butter on a baked potato. Use nonfat sour cream instead. Grill, bake, stir-fry, roast, or bake your foods. Never fry in solid fats such as butter or shortening. Marinate foods to be grilled in fruit juices and herbs. Instead of relying upon commercial salad dressings, learn to make your own top-quality dressing from cold-pressed olive oil, flaxseed oil, or sesame oil.
- Make sure the fat is flavorful. Adding flavor to food is what makes the eating experience enjoyable. Why not choose unsaturated fats and oils that have strong flavors? In this way you will add good flavor to your meals but use less fat in the process. Some examples are sesame oil, peanut oil, and peanut butter. Replace less flavorful cheeses with small amounts of strongly flavored cheeses such as romano, parmesan, and asiago.
Now that you have gained a wealth of information and food for thought to enable you to make changes to your dietary pattern we hope that your desire to pursue a healthier lifestyle has been solidified. While we realize that making grand strides in this direction may be awkward at first, even the smallest of accomplishments can produce noticeable results that will spur you on and perhaps spark the interest of friends and family to join you in this health crusade.
Becoming aware of the need to limit your total fat intake will facilitate your ability to make better choices. In turn, making better dietary choices requires gaining knowledge. As you understand that your food choices not only impact your personal physical health but also the delicate balance of our ecosystem, we are confident that you will successfully adapt to the dynamics of the ever-changing global food supply. Remember, the food choices you make today will benefit you tomorrow and into the years to come.
A Personal Choice about Lipids by University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa Food Science and Human Nutrition Program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.