A Healthy Guide to Fat in Your Diet: The Good, Bad & the Ugly
I will never use a substitute for butter. Margarine is one molecule away from eating plastic. If I’m going to eat that type of food, it’s going to be the real deal.— Paula Deen
Is Fat a Four-Letter Word?
For several decades “fat” has been vilified—an evil word in the American diet. Nutritionists and doctors preached that a low-fat diet is a key to losing weight. We were told that to manage our cholesterol levels, we needed to eliminate fat from our diets.
But further research has found that unlike Gertrude Stein’s rose, not all fats are the same.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
More important than the amount of fat is the type. Bad fats raise cholesterol levels and increase your risk of weight gain, clogged arteries, and diabetes. On the other hand, good fats protect your heart and support overall health. In fact, fats such as omega-3s are essential to your physical and emotional well being—they help you fight fatigue, elevate your mood, and even control your weight. The key to a healthy diet isn’t to cut out the fat, it’s to replace bad fats with the good ones.
So, first let’s look at the four major groups of fats.
Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats: Oils that contain unsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature but start to turn solid when chilled. Olive oil is a good example of this. What is the difference between monounsaturated and polyunsaturated? A chemist would tell you that the difference between these two fats lies in their structures.
Monounsaturated fats contain one double bond in their structures. On the other hand, polyunsaturated fats contain two or more double bonds in their structure.
What does this mean? Well, simply put there are two methods of extracting oil. First is what we call the cold-press method—the monounsaturated oils. ‘Mono’ oils such as:
- extra virgin olive oil,
- peanut oil, and
- sesame oil.
These oils are made without the use of chemicals. Squeeze, press, extract. Done.
A Word About Olive Oil
Olive oil—the fair-haired child of heart healthy fats and the workhorse of the healthy kitchen. It raises HDL (good) cholesterol and lowers LDL (bad) cholesterol. But olive oil is also calorie-dense. That means that it needs to be used sparingly.
Olive oil is amazingly complex. While other oils can be bland or non-descript, olive oil imparts a rich green, fruity flavor. Where you might normally add a pat of butter, why not try a drizzle of good-quality olive oil? You might just be surprised at the result—and your heart will thank you.
But science and innovation have helped us to discover a second set of healthy oils—the polyunsaturated oils.
These oils are manufactured by using heat and solvents to extract the oil from the seed or food product. Examples are
- canola, cottonseed, and
- safflower oils.
Within the group of polyunsaturated oils is subgroup called omega-3 fatty acids. These are heart-healthy and are definitely beneficial (good stuff). Omega-3 has been found to decrease the risk of coronary artery disease and to lower blood pressure levels. The USDA encourages an average of 250mg of omega-3s per day. The best source of omega-3’s is fatty fish, such as:
Saturated fats occur naturally in many foods—those made from animal products. A diet heavy in saturated fats will raise your total cholesterol level. And (more bad news), foods high in saturated fats and also typically high in calories.
- fatty beef,
- pork (which of course includes bacon),
- poultry with skin,
- beef fat (tallow),
- lard and cream,
- cheese and
- other dairy products made from whole or reduced-fat (2 percent) milk.
In addition, many baked goods and fried foods can contain high levels of saturated fats. Some plant-based oils, such as palm oil, palm kernel oil, and coconut oil, also contain primarily saturated fats.
The American Heart Association recommends aiming for a dietary pattern that achieves 5% to 6% of calories from saturated fat. That means, for example, if you need about 2,000 calories a day, no more than 120 of them should come from saturated fats. That’s about 13 grams of saturated fats a day. One tablespoon of animal fat (bacon grease, duck fat, lard) is 116 calories and 13 grams of fat.
The chart below provides information on the fat grams in a 3-ounce serving of meat (which is what we should limit ourselves to). Three ounces of meat is about the size of a deck of cards!
If you grew up 50 (or more) years ago, bacon was probably a part of your daily diet—most of us began our day with a "nutritious" breakfast of bacon and eggs. (And if you are as old as or older than me, your mom might have saved the bacon fat for cooking).
Times changed—bacon became the fat and ugly kid that no one wanted to associate with. And now, the trend has come back full-circle. Bacon appears in everything—it flavors our vodka, appears in lip balm, is coated in chocolate, and is even candied to adorn cupcakes.
Before we leave this section, let me say a few words about butter.
The truth is that butter is a saturated fat. Rich, flavorful, creamy, and luxurious.
Is it a perfect fat? No, certainly not. But, like anything, if used in moderation, it can elevate the aroma, taste, and mouth-feel of a mediocre meal to something amazing. The staff of Cooking Light magazine has not totally shunned the use of butter in their recipes. In fact, they embrace the use of butter as a reward, used as a small element to enhance a food and make it outstanding and (within bounds) still healthy.
How to Use Butter in a Healthy Way
- Don't fry with it. It has a low smoke point (that means that it burns easily).
- Save your butter to finish a pan sauce. An example is given below in this recipe from Cooking Light Magazine:
Pan-Seared Chicken Breast with Butter-Rich Pan Sauce
- 4 (6-ounce) skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
- 3/8 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
- 4 teaspoons olive oil, divided
- 1 tablespoon grated onion
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- 1 1/2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup dry white wine
- 3/4 cup unsalted chicken stock (such as Swanson)
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1/4 teaspoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
- Let chicken stand at room temperature for 20 minutes. Sprinkle chicken with 1/4 teaspoon pepper and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Heat a large stainless steel skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon oil; swirl to coat. Add chicken to pan, rounded side down; cook 5 minutes. Turn chicken over; reduce heat to medium, and cook 5 minutes or until done. Remove chicken from pan; let stand 5 minutes. Add remaining 1 teaspoon oil, onion, and garlic to pan; sauté 1 minute.
- Add flour; sauté 30 seconds. Add wine to pan; cook 30 seconds or until liquid almost evaporates, stirring constantly. Stir in stock; bring to a boil, scraping pan to loosen browned bits. Reduce heat to medium-low; simmer 3 minutes or until reduced to 1/2 cup, stirring occasionally. Remove pan from heat; stir in remaining 1/4 teaspoon pepper, remaining 1/8 teaspoon salt, butter, and sugar. Sprinkle with parsley.
Trans fats are a man-made substance—an industrial process that adds hydrogen to vegetable oils to make them solid at room temperature. The benefit is that these oils spoil at a much slower rate—slower spoilage means a longer shelf-life for goods made with trans fats. And trans fats used for deep frying don’t have to be changed as often. You are probably wondering why this is a bad thing?
Trans fats are considered by nutritionists to be the worst of all fats—the Frankenstein of dietary substances. Trans fats (also called trans-fatty acids or partially hydrogenated oil) are truly a cholesterol double-whammy. They raise the bad (LDL) cholesterol and lower the good (HDL) cholesterol.
Now That You Have All of This Information...
…how do you apply it to your every-day diet?
- Eliminate trans fats from the foods you purchase. Look for phrases such as “partially hydrogenated oil,” “partially hydrogenated vegetable (or soybean, sunflower, cottonseed, or palm) oil,” “hydrogenated vegetable oil” or “shortening” on food labels.
- Find ways to introduce more of the “good” fats to your diet. Use olive oil instead of butter when preparing mashed potatoes. A drizzle of sesame oil tastes wonderful on a green salad or in Asian stir fry. Avocado has a mild taste and creamy feel. Use mashed avocado in place of mayonnaise on sandwiches.
- Fish such as salmon, trout, and mackerel are rich in omega-3. Include them in your weekly menu plan at least once each week.
- Many families have adopted “Meatless Monday” as a way of saving money and improving their nutritional health. A four-egg omelet is not a healthy meat-free alternative, but one beautifully poached egg atop pasta, a rice bowl, or a fluffy baked potato will give you a hearty satisfying meal that is economical, lower in fat, and protein dense.
- Replace the fat-laden croutons on your salad with walnuts.
- Ground turkey with a ratio of 93/7 (lean to fat) is a much healthier choice than ground beef and can be used interchangeably in any recipe. Just be sure to thoroughly cook your turkey (this is not the place for a medium-rare burger).
- Change your method of cooking—broil, bake, or steam in lieu of frying.
- Remove the skin from chicken and turkey.
- Americans tend to eat much more protein than necessary. When filling your plate, mentally divide it into four equal quadrants. One-fourth should contain your serving of protein; one fourth should contain a starch (potato, rice, pasta, or grain). The remaining one-half of your plate should be filled with vegetables and fruits.
The Real Skinny on the Fats You Use
Links to Studies on the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Fats
- What are some benefits of using olive oil?
- What Are the Benefits of Polyunsaturated Fat? | LIVESTRONG.COM
Polyunsaturated fatty acids are a healthy type of fat because they are made of unsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fatty acids include omega-3 fatty acids,...
- Saturated Fat
Eating foods that contain saturated fats raises the level of cholesterol in your blood. High levels of LDL cholesterol in your blood increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.
- Trans Fats
The American Heart Association clears up the confusion about trans fats.
In an effort to reduce fat in your diet, which of these types of recipes would you like to see in future Carb Diva hubs?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
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© 2016 Linda Lum