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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Consider the types when cutting fat intake
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By Sarah Colby

In the 1980s, many dieters found success following a low-fat diet. Then, just as people started losing weight, almost any product you could think of (including cookies, cakes and chips) became available in a low-fat version.

Instead of cutting out both fat and calories, people started cutting fat and replacing calories with these seemingly “diet friendly” alternatives. Trouble is, they cut out losing weight, too.

So did a low-fat diet really matter? Calories are calories. Ultimately, we lose weight when we eat fewer calories than we use. That is why we need to eat less and be more active to lose weight. As people stopped losing weight on low-fat diets, new nutrition topics became popular.

A hot new topic was high protein versus high carbohydrate. But USDA Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center researchers recently found that most Americans are not eating too much carbohydrate or protein. Most Americans are eating too much fat, specifically saturated fat. The research also found that eating too much fat was related to increased waist size.

So, should we stop focusing on the high carbohydrate versus protein debate and start talking about fat again?

In the 1980s, the message was only “eat less fat” and did not specify what type of fat to eat less of and what type we needed to eat more of.

If you are thinking of refocusing on a simple low-fat diet, consider some helpful nutrition information about the types of fats that are available to eat.

There are two main types of fats, saturated and unsaturated. The yellow, thick, gunk that forms in a cool pan after cooking meat is saturated fat. Saturated fat tends to be solid at room temperature. Unsaturated fats tend to be liquid.

You can think about saturated fat being the same way in the body. That thick yellow gunk gets in the body and clogs up the arteries (atherosclerosis). This can lead to a heart attack or stroke. Saturated fat mostly is found in animal products. You can decrease your intake of saturated fat by taking off chicken skin, cutting off visible fat, not using lard or bacon when cooking, baking not frying and using less butter, cream, or gravies. You can also read food labels and avoid products with more than 10 percent DV (daily value) of saturated fat.

Reading food labels also can help you avoid trans fats. Trans fats are made when (healthy) oils are hydrogenated. Hydrogenation makes the oils more solid at room temperature, so the packaged foods can stay on the shelf longer without going bad. Unfortunately, trans fats clog up your body just as badly as saturated fats. Trans fats are often found in packaged foods and fried foods. You can decrease your trans fat intake by reading food labels and avoiding products with trans fats.

There currently is a national movement to reduce Americans' intake of trans fat. The food industry is providing more trans fat-free products. Some entire countries have banned trans fats altogether. Recently, New York banned the use of trans fats in restaurants.

While there are types of fats to avoid, there also are healthy fats to seek out. We find healthy unsaturated (monounsaturated or polyunsaturated) fats in fish, nuts, seeds and plant oils (including olive and canola oil).

Other unsaturated fats you may have heard about are omega fatty acids.

There are two essential omega fatty acids, omega-3 and omega-6. Omega-3 fatty acids are found primarily in salmon and other cold water fish, as well as in ground flax seed (a locally grown good-for-you product!) There has been concern with mercury contamination in fish. The fish we most need to limit are primarily predator fish (such as shark). Researchers believe eating other fish (such as salmon) two to three times a week is not only safe, but also is healthy.

Omega-3 fatty acids help to reduce inflammation and allow blood to flow more freely. This is important in reducing risks from many diseases including arthritis, asthma, obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Omega-6 fatty acid, found in plant oils, helps the body produce inflammatory and blood clotting responses. Think of Omega-6 fatty acids as the plant world's type of internal Band-Aid.

For every gram of omega-3 we eat, we need approximately 4 grams of omega-6. A problem in America is that for every gram of omega-3 in our diet, we eat about 10 to 50 grams of omega-6.

To be as healthy as we can be, we need to eat less saturated fat by eating less animal fat, fried foods and highly processed foods. At the same time, we need to eat more healthy fat from nuts, seeds and cold-water fish.

Last Modified: 4/4/2007
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