It's Smart to Know The Skinny About Fat

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, May 27, 2008

"Fat is a scary word."

That's what someone e-mailed me last week when I asked in the Lean Plate Club Web chat and e-mail newsletter if there was ever confusion about what fats to eat.

"There are good fats and bad," this Lean Plate Club member noted correctly. "But I have no idea which fats are good for you."

To escape hazards she doesn't fully understand, she reads food labels and tries to avoid products that contain double-digit grams of fat per serving. But that puts her in a quandary, since two of her favorite foods -- ice cream and peanut butter -- are high in fat. "They are my downfalls," she laments.

And while she knows that experts recommend eating some fat, she's unsure how much or what types are best. "I am totally confused," she writes.

She's not alone. According to a survey of 1,000 adults released last week by the American Heart Association, fewer than half of Americans know that consuming "better" fats can help reduce their risk of heart disease. These better fats include delicious olive oil, rich in what chemists dub mono-unsaturated fat. Soybean oil -- a polyunsaturated fat -- is also heart-healthy. Both earn the distinction of being "better," because they help lower blood levels of the most dangerous cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL). The higher LDL rises, the more likely your risk of suffering a heart attack, thus the more apt your doctor is to prescribe a cholesterol-lowering statin drug (in addition to having you make diet and exercise changes).

To help clear up the fat confusion, the AHA has just unveiled the Better Fats Sisters, part of a national public health campaign called Face the Fats.

The Sisters arrive a year after the AHA introduced the Bad Fat Brothers -- Trans and Sat -- to urge cutting down on artery-clogging trans fat and saturated fat. Among the foods with bad fats are whole-milk dairy products and butter, and french fries, fried chicken and other deep-fat-fried foods, especially those prepared at restaurants and fast-food establishments.

On average, American adults consume approximately 2.2 percent of total calories from trans fat a day -- at least double the amount advised, according to the AHA. In processed foods, trans fat is now being replaced by coconut, palm and other saturated fats. The shift means that Americans are now sometimes swapping one bad fat for another and eating four to five times as much saturated fat per day as recommended, according to the AHA.

The new campaign uses the Better Fat Sisters-- Mon (short for mono-unsaturated fat) and Poly (named for polyunsaturated fat) -- "to replace bad fats with foods that will be better choices," said Robert H. Eckel, past AHA president and co-director of the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center's Clinical Nutrition Research Unit.

Among the more healthful fat options are using vegetables oils and tub margarine in place of butter and switching to nonfat or low-fat dairy products. Avocados, fish, nuts and seeds are other good sources of better fats.

But how much fat should you eat each day? The AHA and the U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend consuming about a third of daily calories as fat, although very lean diets with as little as 20 percent of fat can still be healthy. The advice is also to keep trans fat as low as possible and to limit saturated fat to 7 percent or fewer of daily calories. The rest should come from better fats.

Few people want to eat with a calculator. So on 2,000 calories a day, the average adult daily intake should be about 67 grams of fat, including 15 grams of saturated fat. That's about the amount found in a bacon cheeseburger. (See how much daily fat grams you ought to aim for with the AHA's online interactive fat translator, which calculates recommended intake based on age, sex, height and weight.)

Whether you're eating bad fats or better fats, moderation still counts. That's because all fat contains the same nine calories per gram, more than twice the calories found in a gram of either protein or carbohydrates. The AHA survey found that "less than 20 percent of consumers know that all fat has the same number of calories," Eckel said. "One caution is not to feel the freedom to eat more fats because they are better. . . . Good fats are not going to help people lose weight."

What also can be confusing is when a product claims zero trans fat on the label, but then includes partially hydrogenated oils on the ingredient list.

"I've been told to avoid foods that list 'partially hydrogenated fats' on their labels," another Lean Plate Club member wrote to me last week. "Yet, here comes a product like Coffee Mate that brags it has 'no trans fats' -- yet its ingredient is 'partially hydrogenated.' What's the difference? What can we believe?"

The Food and Drug Administration allows companies to list zero trans fat on product labels if the food contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. If the label lists partially hydrogenated oil, then there's some trans fat present.

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