This article is from the Fall/Winter 2011 issue of The Wellness Advisor® magazine.
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Sometimes it seems that we are so focused on getting the fat out of our diets, that we forget that some fat is actually necessary for our health. And if you are concerned about your heart health, you should know that some types of fat can help your cardiovascular system function better.
Let’s start with a few basics. We need fat:
- To carry fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K throughout our bodies
- To provide essential fatty acids that our bodies cannot produce on their own
- To give us energy
- To act as the substance that stores our body’s extra calories
- To support skin health
- To insulate and protect our organs as we move about during our daily lives
- To help regulate our body temperature
- To help reduce cholesterol levels (this refers to polyunsaturated fats)
How Much Fat Do We Need?
This is where it may get a little confusing. The Institute of Medicine (IOM), a non-governmental agency that advises our national leaders on health issues, established an Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) of 20 to 35 percent of our energy—calories—as fat (which has nine calories per gram). Achieving 20 percent of our calories from fat can be very difficult for the average American. For most of us, fat makes up about 33 percent of our daily calorie intake. If a person is not overweight or obese, consuming this level of fat in the diet does not present a health problem, as long as the polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are chosen most frequently.
But wait! The heart-healthy Mediterranean diet is relatively high in fat. How can this be? Its emphasis is on the good types of fat. So, the message is that we need to eat more of the right kinds of fat.
Good Fat/Bad Fat
Fats fall into three categories: saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated.
1. Saturated fats are found in foods of animal origin (meats and dairy) as well as some oils, such as coconut oil and palm kernel oil. Saturated fats are probably one of the most significant in their relationship with heart disease because they raise LDL cholesterol levels. That can lead to a buildup of plaque in your arteries.
Try to reduce your saturated fat intake by 10 percent. That’s relatively easy to accomplish by choosing leaner cuts of meat (no highly marbled steaks), fish and skinless chicken. Choose low-fat dairy products such as skim milk. And buy soft margarine instead of butter. Avoid stick margarines or any other type of solid shortening product. The process of hardening a liquid oil is called hydrogenation—and it’s what creates trans-fats which may increase the risk of heart disease. The IOM recommends trans fatty acid consumption be as low as possible while consuming a nutritionally adequate diet.
2. Polyunsaturated fats are found in oils that come from grains such as corn oil, safflower oil, soybean oil and canola oil. If you replace saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats, it has a protective effect against heart disease.
Fish oils also fall into this category. Numerous studies have shown that we need at least two servings (8 oz. total) of oily fish a week. People who eat a lot of fish seem to have less heart disease. So if you like to eat mackerel, sardines and salmon, you’re in pretty good shape as far as this requirement.
If you have coronary heart disease or are at risk for heart attacks and strokes, you should talk with your physician about increasing your fish oil consumption to about a gram a day. You might want to start taking fish oil supplements. The EPA and DHA fatty acids in fish oils can also be found in flax seed oil and canola oil. But our bodies have a harder time converting them into the EPA and DHA that we need.
3. Monounsaturated fats come mostly from olives, avocados and nuts. They have some beneficial effect by helping to prevent cholesterol increases. It’s fine to substitute monounsaturated fats for saturated fats. For example, replacing butter with olive oil.
Realistic, Practical Advice
Children up to three years old need more fat in their diets than their older siblings or parents. It should account for about 30 to 40 percent of their daily calories. Children whose parents keep them on rigidly low-fat diets tend not to thrive as much as children whose diets have higher fat content.
Also children up to two years of age should not have dietary fat severely restricted because it supplies the energy, or calories, that young children need for growth and active play. After age two, encourage children to gradually choose foods with less fat, saturated fat and trans-fat.
From four years to young adulthood, it’s time to teach children how to eat sensibly. They may eat pizza and burgers outside of the home, but recognize that they learn how to make their best nutritional choices based on what you serve at the kitchen table.
Speaking of eating out, when you go to restaurants just assume they are using fat in whatever they cook. This is especially true of fast food restaurants. You’re better off ordering broiled chicken sandwiches or salads. If your resolve weakens, and you get a mammoth burrito or monster hamburger, you could easily be eating your entire day’s worth of fat at one time.
It’s Okay To Splurge Now and Then
We all know that fat enhances flavor. There really are no bad foods. There are just foods we should eat in moderation. All of us need to enjoy some dietary time-outs now and then. Being able to taste and enjoy the wonderful flavors is fine once in awhile. It’s what you do habitually—day in/day out—that counts.