What’s the Big Fat Deal?

February 14, 2012 in Health Claims, Nutrition, Weight Management by Joyce Bunderson

A Happy Valentine's Day wish for your healthy heart.

It seems as though we Americans feel compelled to go from one extreme to another. In the 1990’s we got the idea across that fat had twice as many calories as carbohydrates or protein; so everyone went off the fat cliff trying to avoid every little gram. Of course, you know about the SnackWell Syndrome; when food processors made anything and everything without fat, but we ended up eating the same or more calories from simple sugars and other cheap carbohydrates.

For some, the knowledge that we need fat and that it has an important role in nourishing us, and in satisfying us, appears to be leading back to an idea that lots of fat is a good thing. Let me try to help us understand that while nourishing us and satisfying us are important, moderation is important, too. Thus, we must learn to make wise choices about not only how much fat, but what kinds of fat and where they come from.

Do you feel confident in your knowledge of fats? Or would a little review be helpful?

Having too much fat in our body (overweight, obesity) is leading us to die from heart disease, stroke and cancer.  Obesity has passed up smoking as the country’s most serious health problem. As mentioned above, fat is a potent delivery of calories and as we know calories do count, as related to the storage of fat.

So how do we get the fat we need, without taking too much?

The knowledge that eating too much carbohydrate leads to the same problem as eating too much fat should be helpful. If we know that we have to get the calories under control that is a most important first step. The chemistry behind this important fact is this: our bodies can’t store the excess carbohydrates, so we efficiently make triglycerides (three fatty acids stuck together with a small glycerol molecule that we also make). So the body gets around surplus carbohydrates by storing fat. It makes it, so long as there are too many calories from any source. Calories are converted and stored as fat.

Types of fat

Trans fats

  • If you see the words: “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated oil” on the label, you know that trans fats are in the product. Food processors often make their serving sizes very small. They do this so that the amount of trans fat in a single serving of their product will fall below half a gram. When this happens, the processors are not required to even mention the trans fat on the label. Check the ingredient list of: crackers, cookies, commercial bread, fried foods, cakes and other baked goods, margarine, shortening and snack foods. Trans fat is often lurking in the product, but you get a tad less than half a gram – until you eat more than one “serving”. The processors choose the “serving size”.  You choose the portion size. The more “servings” you include in your portion size, the larger the amount of trans fat.  If you had a label, the FDA would require you to report the number of grams of trans fat in your portion size.
  • Just because a product proudly waves a banner about being low fat, don’t think that necessarily means that the product is a good choice. It could be a small (but dangerous) amount of highly saturated fat, including very harmful trans fat.
  • Trans fats are used in foods because they are relatively inexpensive, they have a good taste and they don’t spoil easily.
  • Trans fats raise the LDL (bad type of cholesterol) AND, in addition, they lower the HDL (good type of cholesterol). Double bad whammy as related to heart disease risk!!! If you need more reasons to avoid it, it is also associated with an increased risk of diabetes.

Saturated fatty acids

  • Saturated fatty acids lead to raised cholesterol levels and can damage certain aspects of immune function. Therefore, they are one of the leading causes of heart disease. The places to keep a watch for are: red and processed meats; butter and shortening; cheese; and processed foods made with tropical oils (palm oil, palm kernel oil and coconut oil); and dairy.

Omega-3 fatty acids

These friendly fats are found in fatty fish like salmon, anchovies, mackerel, tuna, and others. You can eat them in addition to nuts, and dark greens. The type of omega-3s found in fish have the strongest health benefits, but some of the omega-3s are found in nuts, canola oil, algae, flaxseeds, walnuts, broccoli, spinach, and other dark green leafy vegetables (ALA) can be converted in the body to the more powerful DHA and EPAs. These forms of fatty acids are called essential fatty acids because we can’t make them, and it is essential to optimum health that we get them from our diet.

  • These fats have a number of potential health benefits. Studies suggest that they lower the risk of heart disease, the number one cause of death in the U.S.
  • They may protect against symptoms of depression, dementia, cancer and arthritis.
  • It appears that omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and decrease the risk for other unhealthy fats in the blood, which protects the rate of plaque build-up in the blood vessels.
  • Omega-3s can lower the heart rate and reduce the risk of life threatening abnormal heart rhythms. In addition, omega-3s seem to help lower blood pressure.
  • We should have caution in eating large amounts of shark, swordfish, tilefish and king mackerel because of the possibility of mercury in the fish. In addition, we should limit the white albacore to less than 6 ounces per week, also because of mercury.
  • If you decide to use omega-3 supplements, be aware that high levels can increase the risk of bleeding, deplete vitamin E, and possibly interfere with some medications.

Omega-6 fatty acids You don’t have to worry much about these, because they are commonly consumed in more than sufficient amounts. They are found in nuts, cooking oils and salad dressings.

Monounsaturated fatty acids – found in olive oil, canola oil and many nuts. Replacing any saturated oils you have been using is a good place to start. It is only a good first step if you do not consume huge amounts of olive oil or canola oil; it just means when you do use oil, choose these oils, which are healthier than butter, margarine, and shortening. Polyunsaturated fats are also not bad for you, but because we already get sufficient omega-6 fats from common foods, it’s a good strategy to place your emphasis on choosing the monounsaturates.

What to do

  • Decrease overall fat in the diet. Or if your fat intake and calorie intake are already low enough to maintain a healthy weight, then you only need to focus on the types of fat you choose in your diet.
  • Decrease the saturated and trans fatty acids, if they are still in your diet in a significant amount
  • Consume monounsaturated fat in moderate amounts
  • Consume omega-3 fatty acids

Goal: About 650 mg per day of the EPA and DHA fatty acids, choose from the following:

  • 3.5 ounces of salmon = 1000 mg omega-3
  • 3.5 ounces of white fish = 200 to 500 mg
  • 1 tablespoon flaxseed oil = 2,400 mg AHA, some will be converted to EPA and DHA
  • 1 ounce of English walnuts – 2500 mg, some will be converted to EPA and DHA
  • 3 ounces of dark green vegetables 100 mg, some will be converted to EPA and DHA
  • Eat fish 2 to 4 times per week, to balance the omega-6 in salad dressings and processed foods with a good supply of omega-3’s.
  • Use olive oil and canola oil in cooking, salad dressings and other foods.
  • Include flax seeds and flaxseed oil in creative ways in your dishes
  • Choose processed foods, which use canola or soybean oil; avoid those with the controversial tropical oils, including coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil. Don’t be fooled by all the advertising that depicts coconut oil as a health food. Coconut oil is 92 percent saturated fat and saturated fat tends to raise blood cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease. The best way to limit the tropical oils is to be careful with your intake of commercial cakes, cookies and salty ‘snack foods’.

What we know is that fat is important to our health, both in negative and positive ways. The type of fat that we eat can make a difference. As related to health – fat IS a big fat deal.