The Skinny on Fats

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By Susan Bowerman, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D.

The issue of dietary fat is probably one of the most confusing to people. Should you eat as little as possible? More of the “good” fats? The answer lies somewhere in between. Ideally, you want to eat only the amount that you need to add flavor to foods, and of the fats you eat, you want to select the healthiest ones. All fats, regardless of their source, are about 120 calories a tablespoon, so most people can’t (and shouldn’t) eat them freely. Here are some things to remember:

  • Fats are categorized as saturated, polyunsaturated or monounsatured, depending on the predominant fatty acid they contain.
  • Generally speaking, saturated fats (found in animal products like meats, cheese and ice cream as well as hydrogenated vegetable oils) tend to raise blood cholesterol levels. The process of hydrogenating oils, which makes them harder at room temperature, produces trans-fatty acids – which also raise blood cholesterol and should be avoided.
  • Polyunsaturated fats “include.” omega-6 fats or omega-3 fats.
  • The richest source of omega-6 fats in the American diet is corn oil; the richest sources of omega-3 fats in the American diet are fish, flaxseed and vegetables.
  • While small amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are called “essential,” meaning our bodies can’t make them, the amounts required are very small and can be met from plant products, which have a good balance of the two fats.
  • Our diet is typically overloaded with Omega-6 fatty acids, with inadequate amounts of omega-3. This imbalance, promotes the inflammatory process.
  • Monounsaturated fats, found in olive oil and avocado, have neutral effects on cholesterol and do not promote cancer. These fats can be eaten in moderation.
  • Olive oil is a “good” oil for cooking; if the flavor is too strong for you, you can purchase “light” olive oils, which have the same calories as regular olive oil, but are lighter in flavor.

To reduce overall fat intake:

  • Try using pan sprays when you sauté foods, or you can sauté in wine or broth.
  • Use nonfat or reduced-fat versions of high-fat items, such as dairy products, spreads and dressings.
  • If you are watching calories, keep in mind that low-fat or fat-free versions of baked goods often have the same amount of calories as the full-fat version. In many cases, fat is replaced with sugar, which drives up the calories.
  • Avoid fatty meats such as steaks, high-fat ground meats, chops and sausages. Eat more poultry breast, fish, shellfish, egg whites, nonfat dairy products and soy products for protein, which have much less fat than red meats.
  • Avoid farmed salmon, if possible. Farmed salmon is fattier than wild salmon, but the extra fat it contains is not the “good” fat. Despite myths to the contrary, shellfish is not high in cholesterol, and is an excellent source of protein that is very low in fat.
  • Flavor foods with herbs, spices, lemon, onions, garlic, chilies and other seasonings rather than relying on heavy sauces, gravies and butter.
  • When you eat out, try to make smart choices. Keep sauces and gravies to a minimum, and order meats, fish or poultry grilled, broiled, poached, steamed, roasted or baked. Some people skip the starchy part of the meal, especially if it’s likely to be fatty, and order double vegetables instead.
  • Order salad dressing on the side so you can control how much you eat. Restaurants often drench the greens in high-fat dressings.
  • Try fresh fruit or sorbet for dessert rather than pastries and ice cream.

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