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Making Sense of Dietary Fat Messages

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By Sheila Tucker, MA, RD, LDN
Administrative Dietitian, B.C. Dining

fats_new "Olive oil is good for you; use as much as you want", "fat is fattening", "fat causes disease", "a low fat diet is dangerous", "margarine or butter?". Confused about all the messages out there on dietary fat? You're not alone. For years we have been hearing messages cautioning us against high-fat eating while at the same time both the headlines and your next-door neighbor may have been telling you that fat is good. Well, they are all correct.

Fat Chitchat: The Good News and the Bad

What many people don't realize is that fat plays a crucial role in maintaining our health AND that not all fats are *bad*. Fat is an important component of our cell walls & nervous system. It helps to keep us warm, protects our organs and helps store and transport our fat soluble vitamins, Vitamins A, D, E & K. Certain fats are needed for hormone production, neurological development and possibly even disease prevention. A body without fat would be like a house built without insulation, proper wiring and sound structure.

Dietary fat also has an important role in the enjoyment of food. Ever eat an almost-all-carbohydrate meal only to feel hungry again soon afterwards? Add a little fat to the meal and you'll feel satiated longer; it is fat that helps us feel full after a meal, not to mention that it's what makes food taste good, too!

Some research has shown that too low of a fat intake can lead to health problems such as:

Adverse changes in blood cholesterol levels by lowering HDL ("good") cholesterol. A low HDL cholesterol level is considered a cardiac or stroke risk factor.
Problems with fat-soluble vitamins, compromised hormone production and potential problems with neurological development.
Inadequate intake of omega-3 fatty acids. As we hear more about these polyunsaturated fats the evidence mounts on their potential role in heart health, immunity and nerve function.
Over-restricting fat can forfeit your health by eliminating essential fatty acids from the diet. The body cannot manufacture these important fats so you must have a dietary source, which is why they are called "essential".

Excessive fat intake is associated with increased disease risk. High intake of saturated fats is associated with increased cardiac and stroke risk. Additionally, Hydrogenated and trans fats act like saturated fats in the body and have been linked with cardiac risk as well. Overindulging in total fat can affect blood lipids and may increase risk of certain cancers. Most research on the role of dietary fat in disease development and prevention looks at fat intake on balance over time, not whether any one food will cause heart disease or cancer.

Letting the fat out of the bag: What's the secret about dietary fat?

We know too much or too little fat intake is not a healthy option. So, how much of which fats is the right amount for a healthy diet? Here are some tips:

  Don't eliminate all fats. Your body needs essential fats for important functions.
  Balance out total fat intake to a maximum contribution of 30% daily calorie intake. Not every single food or meal has to be low fat, but your diet should be (See your fat gram prescription). If a fried seafood dinner gobbled up your fat allotment for the day, balance that out over the next few days by doing things like skipping the cream cheese on your bagel or that afternoon bag of chips.
  Eat less saturated fat. High saturated fat intake can lead to elevated blood cholesterol. If you need to trim fat to meet the thirty-percent rule, whittle away at saturated fat intake. Saturated fats are hard at room temperature and mostly of animal origin. Fatty cuts of beef and pork plus whole milk dairy products are examples. Tropical oils, like palm & coconut oils and cocoa butter found in processed foods, are also saturated fats.
  Read labels for saturated fat content and keep your average to less than one-third your total fat intake
  Remember the "Pie Plate" Rule: keep portions of animal products on your plate to one-fourth the plate. Plant-based foods get the other three-fourths.
  Choose lean cuts of meat. Trim visible fat and skin from meat and poultry.
  Choose low fat and skim versions of dairy products.
  Be on the lookout for hydrogenated and trans fats that mimic saturated fats in the body. Hydrogenated and trans fats start off as good old unsaturated fats, but processing to make them hard at room temperature reconfigures their chemistry to become less than desirable. Look for the words "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" on label ingredient lists. Watch for upcoming new labels that spell out the presence of trans fats. In the meantime, a rule to remember is "the more towards liquid the less hydrogenated/saturated the fat" (with the exception of the tropical oils, of course). Using this rule: a spreadable tub margarine would have less hydrogenated/saturated fat than a stick margarine or butter.
  Include monounsaturated fats, like avocados, certain nuts and olive, canola and peanut oils, in your regular fat choices. These may help protect against heart disease by increasing HDL cholesterol.
  Choose polyunsaturated fats for essential fats. Plant oils, like corn, sunflower and safflower, contribute linoleic acid, an essential fat. Deep, cold water fish, like salmon, mackerel, tuna or bluefish and some seeds, like flaxseed, contain omega-3 fats that are being touted for their potentially powerful disease prevention properties. Choose an omega-3 fat dietary source a few times a week. It is not recommended to take fish oil supplements as a source of these fats as this could lead to blood clotting complications due to dosages available. If you do choose a supplement, speak with your healthcare provider about the dose.
  Carefully include good sources of protein, iron and zinc when you attempting to trim down fat intake. A common mistake when fat is over-restricted is to axe important minerals and protein from the diet. Good, low fat sources of protein include lean cuts of beef and pork, skinless poultry, fish, low fat and skim dairy products and legumes (such as lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans). Be careful to not solely rely upon dairy sources for protein, as these foods contain NO iron, a crucial mineral present in the other protein sources listed.

Fat Facts: Terminology

Essential fats- needed polyunsaturated fat, linoleic acid, which our body cannot manufacture itself. Dietary sources include polyunsaturated vegetable oils. Linolenic acid may also be known as an essential fat; though our bodies can make this fat, its supply is often limited. Linolenic acid is found in omega-3 fat sources.
HDL Cholesterol - high-density lipoprotein (HDL) is touted as "good" cholesterol because it is the fraction of total blood cholesterol that scavenges "bad" atherosclerosis-causing LDL cholesterol in the body and returns it to the liver for breakdown. Exercising, eating monounsaturated fats and moderate alcohol intake can help to increase HDL levels.
Hydrogenated and trans fats - fats which have been processed to become hard at room temperature or "spreadable" from previously liquid forms of fat. Hydrogenated and trans fats mimic saturated fats in the body and can elevate blood cholesterol.
Omega-3 fats - fats found in deep, cold water fish, like salmon, bluefish, mackerel, tuna plus in some seeds, like flaxseed. Much research is focusing on their potential role in decreasing cardiac risk, and improving neurological and immune function.
Saturated fats - fats found primarily in foods of animal origin plus tropical oils (palm & coconut oils, cocoa butter). Diets high in saturated fat are associated with increased risk of cardiac disease and some cancers.
Unsaturated fats - fats found in both plant and animal foods. Unsaturated fats should comprise the majority of your dietary fat choices.
Monounsaturated fats - unsaturated fats found in olive, canola and peanut oils, some nuts. These fats may improve your cardiac risk by increasing HDL cholesterol.
Polyunsaturated fats - unsaturated fats found in plant oils (like sunflower, soybean, corn) and fatty fish. These fats are sources of important omega-3 and essential fatty acids.

Your Fat Prescription

Use this table to determine your average maximum daily fat gram intake based upon your fuel needs. Remember: too low a fat intake is also not advisable. If you chronically take in less than 20 grams of fat per day, speak with a Registered Dietitian.

Daily Fuel Needs (calories) Fat Prescription (grams)
1600 53
1800 60
2000 67
2200 73
2400 80
2600 87
2800 93
3000 100