I often read and see how dietitians/nutritionists promote low-fat diets, accused of promoting an out-dated way of thinking. For many years, we have not promoted a low-fat way of eating, except in very particular circumstances.
When it was determined that there was more than one type of dietary fat, and that they have very different roles in the body, recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to the American Heart Association changed. No longer was a low-fat diet recommended or promoted, but diet low in saturated fat diet and no trans-fat diet recommended today.
In conjunction with many other diet, exercise and (quit) smoking recommendations, the low–saturated fat and low-to-no trans-fat diet is promoted to lower risk of heart disease and several cancers.
Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and found in both animal and plant foods. From the solid fat in meat and butter, to the fat found in full-fat milk, cheese, and coconut oil – saturated fat is found in many parts of the diet. The goal is not to eliminate saturated fat, but to limit it to less than 10% of your total calories. For someone who needs 2,000 calories per day, saturated fat recommendation is less than 200 calories or just over 20 grams per day (fat has 9 calories/gram).
Saturated fat is attributed to increased blood cholesterol levels, which is a risk factor for heart disease. Some ways to lower saturated fat is to switch to low-fat or fat-free milk and yogurt (you save calories and saturated fat), choose lean meats, and if you choose full-fat cheese, stick to 1-2 ounces per day.
Having a lower saturated fat intake, replaced with healthy fats, not carbohydrates, appears beneficial. In the late-80s to early-90’s there was something called the “Snackwell Phenomenon.” People saw low-fat or fat-free foods, like Snackwell cookies, and thought they could eat an unlimited amount when they contained the same amount of calories as regular cookies. Calories still count, and just because something is fat-free it is automatically healthy. Hint: marshmallows contain no fat, but they are nearly all sugar. They aren’t “good” for you…
While some trans-fats are found naturally in some animal foods, this isn’t the trans-fat we are concerned with. It is the “created” trans-fats that we warn people about. Trans-fats are previously “healthy,” unsaturated fats that have added hydrogen to help them be more solid at room temperature and shelf stable. Think about Crisco: vegetable oil that is now solid. We cannot create or accidentally make trans-fats in our home. It requires a chemical reaction in a specific setting.
While trans-fat is now demonized, ostracized, and out-right banned in some municipalities such as New York City and Seattle and the State of California, it can still be found in the American Diet. Typically it is found in processed foods and some fast food restaurants.
The first major amendment to the Nutrition Facts Panel added the requirement of listing trans-fat as part of the total fat. The “catch” that I warn people of is that if something has less than 0.5 grams per serving of trans fat (as with any type of fat), it is legally allowed to be called “trans-fat free.” That is how the labels were set up years ago. So, if something has 0.4 grams of trans-fat per serving, and we eat say, three servings, we could be getting 1.2 grams of trans fat from that food. While there is no way to know how much is in the serving, if any, look to the ingredients list for “partially hydrogenated” oils, such as soybean oil, cottonseed oil and palm oil.
So, check the label, both the Nutrition Facts and ingredients, as well as restaurant websites for nutrition information.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 states: “Keep trans fatty acid consumption as low as possible by limiting foods that contain synthetic sources of trans fats, such as partially hydrogenated oils, and by limiting other solid fats.”
While industry is making some changes, don’t expect them to change everything for you. You decide what to put into your mouth, so be informed about what is in your food.