One of the reasons we love fat so much is that it carries flavor. But if you are trying to lose weight, it is important to remember that a gram of fat contains more than twice as many calories as a gram of protein or carbohydrate. Also, as explained in The Thermic Effect of Food, dietary fat and body fat are so similar that dietary fat is more easily stored as body fat than protein or carbohydrate.
Foods like cheese stand out as among the most fat-laden, with a great number of calories coming from fat. But as important as it is to select the healthiest foods, it is also important to consider how they are prepared.
Fried foods, especially deep-fried, contain a great amount of fat. While chicken and fish are usually leaner than beef or pork, they can contain more fat when they are fried. Look at how the number of grams of fat in a chicken breast changes depending on how it is cooked:
|Chicken Breast Cooking Method||Fat|
|Meat Only, Roasted||3.1|
|Meat Only, Fried||4.1|
|Meat and Skin, Batter Fried||18.5|
Be careful with salad dressings, mayonnaise, and other condiments that are high in fat content. They greatly increase the calorie count and can negate the healthy aspects of a meal. Replace mayonnaise-based condiments with fat-free alternatives like fat-free yogurt, mustard, ketchup and barbecue sauce.
Study after study has shown that people living in countries that eat mostly low fat, plant-based diets have lower rates of obesity, heart problems, cancer and many other maladies. But when these people are introduced to the fat-laden Western diet -- either because it is brought into their country or because they move to a country influenced by it -- their rates of these maladies sharply increase.
But don't try to eliminate fat altogether, as dietary fat is necessary to maintain a healthy body. It is a vital component for building body tissue and cells, and it aids in the absorption of some vitamins and other nutrients. Many people eat too much of the bad fats, but also eat too little of the good fats required for optimal health.
The following paragraphs introduce some of the different types of fat we eat. A high-fat diet typically increases the risk of heart disease and cancer. But a low-fat diet could be even worse if it contained the wrong kind of fats.
Saturated fats are found mostly in animal products such as milk, butter, ice cream, cheese, lard and the fat found on meat. In plants, saturated fats are found in tropical oils such as coconut and palm.
Saturated fats play the single greatest role in raising blood cholesterol and putting us at greater risk for heart disease.
Monosaturated fats are found in canola, olive and peanut oils, avocados, olives and many nuts and seeds.
Polyunsaturated fats are found in corn, sunflower, safflower and soybean oils, fish, mayonnaise and many nuts and seeds.
Unsaturated fats are better for you than saturated fats.
Trans fats are found in margarine, many commercially baked goods including cookies, crackers, doughnuts and pastries, and many deep-fried foods and chips. All the bad stuff we love to eat.
Trans fats raise blood cholesterol, though not as much as saturated fats. They do, however, raise LDL or "bad" cholesterol while lowering HDL or "good" cholesterol. Watch for trans fats on package labels, and where they are not listed watch for ingredients containing partially hydrogenated and hydrogenated oils.
If you use margarine, note that softer margarines have been hydrogenated less and therefore contain fewer trans fats. Tub margarine is usually better for you than stick margarine because it is less hydrogenated. There are also butter and margarine substitutes available that contain neither cholesterol nor trans fats.
A food containing no animal products and labeled "cholesterol free" would look like a healthy food to anyone. But look closely. If it contains hydrogenated oils (trans fats), it could be unhealthy for everyone.
Most people eat more omega-6 fats than needed and fewer omega-3 fats than are required for optimal health. Omega-6 fats are found in polyunsaturated fats like corn and safflower oils. Omega-3 fats are found in flaxseed, walnuts, green soybeans, tofu and certain fish including albacore tuna, salmon, lake trout, sardines, herring and mackerel.
The actual content of a particular fat is not as clearly defined as these descriptions would lead you to believe. For example, beef fat is listed as saturated, but its actual content is just over half saturated. Olive oil is listed as monounsaturated, but its actual content is just over three-quarters monounsaturated.
Olive oil is so often referred to as being a healthier fat that you might think of it as being healthy. But it is still pure fat, and 14% of it is saturated.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that our bodies require for good health. However, excess cholesterol can accumulate on the walls of our arteries and this can lead to heart disease.
Our bodies produce sufficient cholesterol on their own; most of the excess cholesterol in our blood comes from eating other animals. Cholesterol is found in high-fat dairy products, egg yolks, shellfish, liver and other organ meats, and high-fat meats and poultry skin. Plants contain so little cholesterol that they are generally considered to be cholesterol-free.
Historically, the Inuit people of the Canadian and Alaskan Arctic regions have eaten a very high fat, high cholesterol diet. Yet they experienced very little heart disease until introduced to the typical Western diet.
Since their diet was already high in fat, it wouldn't appear to be the high fat aspect of the Western diet that is to blame. Perhaps it is the heavily process foods of the Western diet that contribute the most to disease, for Inuits and everyone else.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting foods high in trans fats, saturated fats and cholesterol. While there appears to be no debate that trans fats are bad for you, there are those who believe that saturated fats, and even cholesterol, have been unjustly blamed for causing disease only because all fats have been lumped together and labeled "bad."
But it's not that simple. The Inuits' diet was also high in omega-3 fats, which protect from heart disease. And you can't simply look at total cholesterol, as the ratio between "good" (HDL) and "bad" (LDL) cholesterol can have a significant effect; an increase in HDL may have a positive effect on health despite that fact that it raises the level of total cholesterol.
So there are good fats, and bad fats, and some of the bad fats may not really be that bad under the right conditions. We're sorry it isn't a little less complex. But while all this is being sorted out by science, there is one thing you can count on.
The more you move towards a diet of natural, unprocessed foods, the healthier you will be. Just like the Inuits and other populations of yesteryear.