Most people have a love/hate relationship with fat. Fat adds rich flavor and smooth texture to food and feels good in your mouth, so we love it. But we hate the fact that it's the most concentrated (or fattening) source of energy — containing 9 calories per gram versus 4 calories per gram for carbohydrates and protein. With all the negative press fat has received, it's easy to forget that the body needs some fat to build healthy cells, cushion internal organs, keep skin and hair healthy and provide a layer of insulation beneath the skin. The body can make most of the fat it needs, but dietary fat also supplies us with the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, as well as essential fatty acids, linoleic, linolenic and arachidonic acids, which can't be synthesized by the body. The problem with fat is that most of us consume the wrong kind of fats.
There are different types of dietary fats and not all are a like. Saturated fats and trans fats are the most dangerous type and are linked to a higher risk of heart disease. Saturated fats are found primarily in animal foods and dairy products, but also in processed foods, snacks and other foods that use coconut, palm and other cooking oils. Most saturated fats raise blood cholesterol by increasing the levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol — the so-called "bad" cholesterol; in fact, they can raise blood cholesterol levels more than high-cholesterol foods.
Trans fats are vegetable oils that are made more solid by a chemical process called partial hydrogenation. Trans fats are found in many products, especially vegetable shortening, margarine, French fries, and many processed foods. Trans fats lead to clogged arteries even more than saturated fats.
But polyunsaturated fats, found in vegetable and fish oils, and monounsaturated fats found in olive, canola and peanut oils lower blood LDL cholesterol when substituted for saturated fats in the diet.
Still, all fats should be eaten in moderation, although the emphasis should be on lowering saturated fat consumption and eliminating trans fats and replacing it with more polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Here's how:
Get an oil change
While all cooking oils are 100% fat and contain about 40 calories per teaspoon, some are better than others. One reason why the rate of heart disease is lower in countries like Greece and Italy is because monounsaturated fat-rich olive oil is a staple in the Mediterranean diet. One cholesterol benefit "monos" have over "polys" is that while both help lower LDL cholesterol levels, monos do it without also lowering high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the so-called "good" cholesterol. Polys lower both HDL and LDL cholesterol. In addition, when incorporated into LDL, monos are less likely to be oxidized than polys, and oxidized fatty acids of LDL are responsible for its deposition into the walls of arteries. The traditional skillet fats in the American diet — butter, lard and vegetable shortening — are all high in dangerous saturated or trans fats. The worst oils are the so-called "tropical" oils like coconut and palm oil. Unfortunately, they are frequently used in processed and snack foods because they add texture and flavor to foods.
Read food labels
By reading food labels, you'll be able to see what products contain these harmful oils. And you'll see exactly how much more fat and calories you're eating. Many canned and packaged products may appear to be a single serving, but actually can contain two or more recommended servings. And since labeled fat and calorie content is calculated on the recommended portion size, you may be eating two or three times as much fat and calories as you may think.
Reading labels for terms like "hydrogenated" can also clue you in to trans fats. Hydrogenation adds hydrogen to an unsaturated (and less harmful) fat to give a product more texture. The problem is, that hydrogenation turns a vegetable oil, which most people consider safer, into one that can raise cholesterol as much as animal fats. So keep an eye out for the words "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" on packages of baked goods like cookies, cakes and snack foods, as well as on candies and other products.
Another reason to read labels: it helps you calculate your total fat calories and, maybe even more important, your intake of saturated fats, which should comprise no more than 10% of your total calories. So if you're consuming 2,000 calories a day, you should have no more than 22 grams of saturated fat.
Stick to no-stick pans
Since all cooking oils get all their calories from fat, one way to cut down on total calorie intake is to cook with no-stick cooking pans. Or try a little orange juice to prevent foods from sticking. Use small amounts of water, wine, bouillon or broth instead of oil or butter to saute foods, and also adapt recipes to take advantage of cooking methods that naturally reduce fat, such as broiling, boiling or simmering, grilling, roasting, poaching, microwaving, steaming or stir-frying.
Eat fewer animal foods
Besides being high in cholesterol (which is only found in animal foods, not plant foods), animal foods like meat and dairy products tend to be rich in saturated fats. Many experts recommend eating three or fewer servings of meat each week, and focusing your dairy intake on yogurt products.
Fat substitutes give reduced-fat and fat-free versions of foods a flavor, texture and appearance similar to that of the original food. Some fat substitutes are carbohydrate-based and others are protein-based. They're used individually or in combination in all kinds of foods, including margarine, salad dressings, cheese and other dairy products, and frozen desserts. By using fat substitutes, food manufacturers can make foods that are not only lower in total fat, but also in saturated fat, cholesterol and calories. Both carbohydrate-based and protein-based substitutes contribute calories, but usually fewer than contained in fat.
The carbohydrate-based fat substitutes you might see listed on a food label include modified starches, dextrin, cellulose and gums. When combined with water, these products swell and can be used to thicken foods, such as fat-free mayonnaise and salad dressings. Protein-based fat substitutes, such as Simplesse, are made from skim-milk protein. They lend a creamy texture to such foods as lowfat ice cream and frozen yogurt. Milk protein is also used to improve the texture and appearance of reduced-fat cheeses.
Since carbohydrate-based and protein-based fat substitutes are made from common food substances that the body can digest and absorb, they are easily granted Food and Drug Administration approval and placed on the GRAS (generally recognized as safe) list of substances. Calorie-free artificial fats such as Olestra, however, are made from substances the body doesn't digest and absorb. Therefore, manufacturers must petition the FDA to approve them as additives.
Olestra is a sucrose polyester made by chemically adding the fatty acids from vegetable oil to sucrose. It looks, feels and tastes like fat, but it is calorie-free because it passes through the body without being digested or absorbed. Unlike any other fat substitute, Olestra can be used for frying potato chips, cheese puffs and other snack foods. The controversy surrounding Olestra centers on its safety and healthfulness. As Olestra travels though the intestine, it reduces the absorption of any fat-soluble vitamin — such as A, D, E and K — in the intestine at that time. Also, earlier forms of Olestra caused gastrointestinal problems, diarrhea, for example, for some people. Although the manufacturer says that the reformulated product causes no more digestive problems than regular fat, the FDA requires that foods containing Olestra carry a label warning about potential side effects.