By Christine Zellers, MPP, Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Cape May County, Family & Community Health Sciences
Fat free eating was popular in the 80s and 90s largely due to the belief that heart disease in the 60s and 70s was caused by a high fat diet. Removing fat was not the answer to cure heart disease. It is an essential nutrient that provides energy and helps the body to function properly, assists with cell growth, and aids in hormone production. While fat is needed, not all fat is the same. The three types of dietary fats are unsaturated, saturated and trans fats. It is important to eat mostly unsaturated fats, eat saturated fat in moderation and avoid trans fats.
There are two types of unsaturated fats, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Monounsaturated fats come from olives, nuts, and seeds, avocados, and fish. These fats support good cell health, store nutrients, produce important hormones, lower bad cholesterol, increase good cholesterol, prevent heart disease and stroke and when eaten with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains promote a well-balanced diet. Unsaturated fats also dissolve vitamins in the body like A, C, E and K that come from foods. Monounsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and start to solidify when they are chilled and include olive oil, peanut oil, safflower oil, and sesame oil. Polyunsaturated fats reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke and maintain the body’s cells. Both mono and poly unsaturated fats should be eaten in moderation, choose more of these and less saturated and trans fats for better health outcomes.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends keeping saturated fat consumption to less than 10% of calories per day. This recommendation is based on scientific evidence that replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat is associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Too much saturated fat could increase bad cholesterol and cause heart disease. Saturated fats are fats from animals like butter and meats. Keep foods like high fat meats to a minimum and instead choose plant-based protein or lean protein like chicken. Even lean foods can have saturated fats, keeping higher saturated foods to a minimum is essential to avoid exceeding the recommendations.
Trans fats have been banned in the United States and other countries due to the hydrogenation process. Hydrogenation is a procedure in which hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to form a semi-solid product known as partially hydrogenated oil. Most products no longer contain trans fats but checking the ingredients label for the fat by name, partially hydrogenated oil, is the best way to avoid it because some products do still contain trans fats. Common foods that contain trans fats are fried fast food, microwave popcorn, some margarines and certain oils, processed bakery products, creamers, frosting, potato chips and pizza. Trans fat has been linked to heart disease, inflammation, higher LDL cholesterol or bad cholesterol and lower good HDL cholesterol levels. Trans fats should be avoided to decrease the risk of heart attack, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Reading the ingredients labels on foods is the best way to avoid trans fat.
Removing any nutrient is not recommended, instead take small steps to change from less healthy fats to more beneficial ones. Eat less saturated fat by replacing butter with olive oil when cooking. Choose low fat and fat free milk because the higher fat versions contain more saturated fats. Avoid trans fats by checking for partially hydrogenated oils. Instead of removing fats altogether eat more fish and lean protein and add vegetables, fruits, and whole grains to every meal to establish a well-balanced diet.