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College of Human Ecology

Fat necessary in diet - food pro offers commonsense approach, 10 tips

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Food labels are changing and consumers can benefit.

In 2006, nutrition fact labels on food are required to identify the presence of trans fats, said Sandy Procter, Kansas State University Research and Extension nutrition educator. The requirement has prompted some manufacturers to re-formulate foods to eliminate the troublesome trans fats - many cookies and crackers are now being touted as having "0 Trans Fats."

Trans fats, which typically add flavor and prolong the shelf life of commercially-prepared foods, have been implicated in increased heart disease risk, said Procter, a registered dietitian and coordinator of the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program in the state.

"We all need some fat," she said. "Like carbohydrates, fat is used by the body as an energy source. It also is key in delivering fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K and adds flavor and to the mouth feel of foods."

Mouth feel?

"Mouth feel describes the texture, the smoothness fats add to our foods," Procter said. "Fats also add satiety value - to our feeling satisfied after we eat. Peanut butter is an example - it's the fat in peanut butter that makes it smooth, creamy and filling -- it satisfies."

Too much fat can, however, add extra calories that add up to extra pounds and contribute to a long list of health problems, including obesity, heart disease, diabetes and some cancers, said Procter, who answered frequently-asked questions about fats and health:

Q: If fat is necessary, how much is recommended?

A: For adults, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) dietary guidelines recommend limiting total fat consumption to 20 to 35 percent of total daily calories.

Nutrition labels identify the grams of fat in each serving. Since one gram of fat yields 9 calories, multiply the grams of fat by nine to arrive at the fat calories per serving. For a 2,000 calorie a day diet with 30 percent of calories from fat, no more than 600 calories should come from fat.

Q: What are the dietary recommendations for children and teens?

A: Dietary recommendations (from the USDA) for children ages 2-3 recommend that 30 to 35 percent of calories come from fat, which is needed for growth and development, particularly of the nervous system. Children in this age group can, for example, benefit from the fat in whole milk. For children and adolescents ages 4-18, limiting fat to 25 to 35 percent of total calories is recommended.

Q: Which fat is best?

A: Fats fall into two basic categories: saturated and unsaturated. To simplify this explanation, a saturated fat is typically solid at room temperature and usually from an animal source. Butter and lard are examples, but coconut and palm kernel oils are plant oils that are high in saturated fat.

The chemical composition of unsaturated fats, which are generally considered the more healthy fats, varies. They may, for example, be classed as a mono or polyunsaturated fat. Olive and canola oils, which are plant-based monounsaturated fats, are liquid at room temperature. Polyunsaturated fats, also liquid at room temperature, are the main type of fat in corn and safflower oils. Omega 3 fatty acids, found in walnuts, flaxseed and fish are polyunsaturated fats.

Q: Is it necessary to totally eliminate trans fats and/or saturated fats from the diet?

A: Americans are advised to eat less that 300 mg of cholesterol a day, as few trans fats as possible and to limit saturated (solid) fats to less than 10 percent of total calories. Currently, we get from 12 to 14 percent of our total energy from saturated fats.

Q: Do you have tips that would help someone follow the dietary guidelines and reduce saturated fat in his or her diet?

A: Yes. Here are 10 fat-reducing tips:

1. Read food labels; look at the type of fat and the percent of calories that comes from fat.

2. Weigh fat, flavor. A little fat can go a long way in flavoring food, so look for reduced-fat versions of favorite foods, such as a reduced fat butter-like spread that combines an unsaturated fat (like canola oil) with a saturated fat (butter) to reduce fat in a flavorful spread. Reduced-fat salad dressings, cream cheese and even fat-free half and half can reduce saturated fats in the diet without sacrificing flavor.

3. Serve salad dressings, sauces and gravies on the side, so you can choose how much of these foods, which often are high in fat, to eat.

4. Choose lean cuts of meat and poultry. Trim visible fat and use cooking methods that do not add fat, such as oven roasting, broiling, poaching, steaming, baking or grilling.

5. Cook at home if you can, so you'll know exactly what you're eating and how it was prepared.

6. If eating out, choose menu items that are marked as healthy choices and/or described with words such as baked, broiled or lean grilled.

7. Increase fruit and vegetable servings. Though these are typically low-fat foods, it's important to not add fat when cooking or serving fruits and vegetables. For potatoes, it's the add-ons, a chunk of butter or a dollop of sour cream, rather than the potato itself, that's at fault.

8. Look for recipes that call for oil, rather than solid fats.

9. Use flavorful fat replacements. Replace some of the fat in a brownie recipe with applesauce or use reduced-fat spread or nonfat yogurt to replace high-fat toppings for baked potatoes.

Look for little ways to lower fat, without giving up favorite foods. Choose skim milk over whole milk or a graham cracker crust over a traditional piecrust prepared with lard. Another example is to make fruit pie, which typically has a double crust, with one crust and/or a crumb topping or lattice crust to reduce fat, not flavor.

10. Eat recommended portions and, if still hungry, opt for seconds in foods that are filling (fruits and vegetables), but low in calories and fat, rather than loading up on fat-laden foods. If the family still wants Grandma's favorite cookie or birthday cake that's high in fat, make smaller cookies and eat one or two, rather than a plateful or serve a smaller piece of cake.

"Don't expect to change your diet overnight," Procter said. "Gradual changes can lead to a health-promoting lifestyle and often are more long lasting than going cold turkey."

"Announcing your intention to eat more healthfully may not always be the best strategy, either," said Procter, who shared the story of a nutrition colleague who announced to arriving Thanksgiving guests that she had reduced calories and fat in traditional holiday foods. "The food tasted great, but guests shunned the healthier recipes," Procter said.

"If you want to share news of a shift to healthier choices, consider waiting until after the meal, when family and friends have already enjoyed the healthier recipes."

This article was posted on Tuesday, December 20, 2005, and is filed under College News, Food, Nutrition, Dietetics and Health.