The Facts About Fats

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Fat is no longer a four-letter word in nutrition circles, but knowing how much of it to chew -- and what kind -- can be tough.

Take the latest dietary guidelines from the federal government. They recommend eating 25 to 35 percent of daily calories as fat and urge limiting saturated fat (found mostly in animal products such as meat and cheese) to 7 percent of calories, and trans fat (found in many fried foods and baked goods) to less than 1 percent.

Try that without using a calculator every time you eat a meal.

Now a new, Web-based tool could make it easier to follow the guidelines. This week the American Heart Association plans to unveil My Fats Translator, part of an interactive site designed to help take the guesswork out of eating fat and encourage smarter fat choices. (The initiative has been underwritten by part of an $8.5 million settlement from McDonald's; the fast-food chain was sued in 2003 for allegedly failing to tell the public that it had reneged on a promise to switch to healthier oils for its french fries.)

The goal is to "help people become aware of the type of fat they are consuming and to help them go out of their way to restrict trans fat and saturated fat," says Alice Lichtenstein, who chairs the American Heart Association's nutrition committee and is a professor of nutrition at Tufts University.

That's because both of these unhealthy fats are linked to an increased risk of heart disease and to other health problems. In March, National Cancer Institute researchers reported a link between higher fat intake and invasive breast cancer in older women. Women at greatest risk in the study, which was published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, averaged 40 percent of calories as fat and ate the most saturated fat.

To learn how many grams of fat you need to eat, go to and simply type your age, sex, weight, height and physical activity level into the My Fats Translator. It does the math for you. So a 45-year-old sedentary woman who is 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighs 150 pounds learns that she should aim for 1,910 calories daily and 53 to 74 grams of fat, including 14 grams of saturated fat and two grams of trans fat.

But how does that translate to food?

The new tool gives answers using popular foods as examples, then offers a few smarter choices in each category. It shows that a cheeseburger from a fast-food restaurant delivers 27 percent of the daily calories for that 45-year-old sedentary woman and provides more than a third of her daily fat as well as a day's worth of saturated and trans fat. If she skips the cheese, she could save 100 calories and cut unhealthy fats nearly in half.

Other smart choices include swapping two slices of deep-dish pepperoni pizza for two slices of a regular pizza with sausage, green pepper and mushrooms. That switch cuts a third of calories and half the fat grams, according to My Fats Translator. Choose a thin-crust pizza with ham, green peppers and mushroom and cut the calories in half again. Plus, you shave another five grams of saturated fat.

It's seeing the power of such easy substitutions that the American Heart Association hopes will encourage consumers to make wiser choices. American adults consume about 2 percent of their total calories from trans fat -- twice the recommended limit -- and most are also eating more than the recommended maximum of saturated fat. "Consumers," says Robert Eckel, immediate past president of the American Heart Association, "are not well informed about fat."

A 2006 poll of 1,000 adults conducted for the AHA found that 84 percent of consumers had heard of trans fat, but only about half could correctly cite the health effects of trans fats or identify at least one food that had them. By comparison, about 70 percent of those polled could identify at least three foods with saturated fat, the poll found.

The AHA hopes to make the public more fat-savvy with the help of the Bad Fats Brothers, two cartoon characters that they're also unveiling online this week to help teach the differences between bad and good fats. "Trans" and his older brother, "Sat," appear in a "webisode" as wisecracking fellows who can "break your heart" -- if you let them. ยท

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