Believe it or not, there is such a thing as getting too little fat in your diet. While you can go for the next 50 years without cholesterol and trans-fats in your life, a healthy diet will include some good fats, like the mono- and poly-unsaturated fats that you find in nuts and vegetable oils, as well as some omega-3.
"The good news is that you need to have some fat in your diet everyday," says Andrea Goynshor, MPH, RD, CDE, a clinical dietitian at Rush. "But it's one of those things that you'll probably never have to worry about. Most people, in fact, exceed their fat intake for the day without even trying."
For the most part the body takes care of itself with whatever nutrition you provide. The body can reconstruct fats and proteins out of smaller molecules. For instance, you won't ever need cholesterol from your diet. Your body can make cholesterol on its own. There are some fats, however, that the body cannot create for itself.
These fats are sometimes referred to as essential fatty acids. Omega-3 and omega-6 fall into this category. "Omega 3 fats are the healthy ones. Omega 6 fats are necessary, but people tend to eat much more than they need," says Goynshor. "Omega 3 is what to focus on getting more of in your diet." Some good sources of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are:
- Flax seed oil
- Coldwater oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel, herring, anchovies and sardines
- Some beans such as kidney, great northern, navy and soy
All in Moderation
While your body needs fat to function optimally, this is not a green light for sopping up loads of olive oil with your bread at your next visit to your favorite Italian restaurant. It's more of a yellow light for enjoying vegetable oils and nuts, but being cautious about the quantity. According to the MyPyramid Plan, the new food pyramid plan from the USDA:
- The average American woman should aim for about five teaspoons of oil per day
- The average American man should aim for six teaspoons
If you're at a good weight that you're trying to maintain, you can add a teaspoon of oil to your diet. Since the average American is a bit overweight and trying to lose weight, the recommendation above is for less oil per day. If you're not sure where you stand, check out your weight using our weight chart and BMI calculator.
The big caution is that the fats and oils in your diet won't always be so easy to measure. The fat content of a handful of nuts, for instance, is almost equivalent to three teaspoons of oil, or about half of your fat intake for the day.
Another source of fat that may not be easily recognizable is the fat in dairy products. "Look for the lower fat alternatives to your favorite dairy products," suggests Goynshor.
Some foods high in good fats and oils:
- Some fish
Avoid the Bad Fats
Saturated fats are the biggest dietary culprits when it comes to increasing the levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) in the blood. LDL is the so-called "bad" blood lipid.
Some foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol (to be eaten sparingly or avoided all together):
- Beef fat
- Pork fat
- Chicken fat
- Egg yolks
- Foods that contain these products (like baked goods that contain butter and eggs)
Trans fats should also be avoided. "Try to steer clear of anything that contains trans fats," says Goynshor. "Avoiding pre-packaged and fried foods is a good strategy. Always look for a better choice."
Some foods that may have trans fats:
- Fried foods
- Some margarines
- Some shortenings
- Foods that contain these products, such as packaged cookies, cakes, crackers
"Trans fats are often used in foods as a stabilizer," says Goynshor. "While this makes things last longer on the shelf, it's probably not the best for you. Simpler is better, so read those labels carefully."
While oils from plants won't add cholesterol to your diet, some can have a large amount of saturated fat. Cottonseed, palm, palm kernel and coconut oils are all high in saturated fat. In fact, palm oil has more saturated fat than lard. Palm kernel and coconut oil are more highly saturated than lard and butter.
You're probably not likely to cook with these oils at home; however, they are often used in processed foods, so be careful and read labels. Always read the nutritional label. If a product contains a high percentage of saturated fat, you'll want to reduce the size of your portion.
Be cautious; even if the label says cholesterol free, the product may still be high in saturated fat.
Heart Healthy Diet Guidelines
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), you should follow these dietary guidelines to keep your heart healthy:
- About 30 percent or less of the day's total calories should come from fat
- About 8 to 10 percent of the day's calories should come from saturated fat
- Try for less than 300 milligrams of dietary cholesterol a day
- "Your body can manufacture its own cholesterol, so if you can avoid it all together, that's ideal," says Goynshor.
- Limit sodium intake to 2400 milligrams a day.
- Consume just enough calories to achieve or maintain a healthy weight and reduce your blood cholesterol level.
"It's really helpful to talk to a dietitian about what is a reasonable calorie level for you," says Goynshor. "A dietitian can also give you great ideas for staying within your daily calorie goals, while enjoying a varied and tasty diet."
More Information at Your Fingertips:
- For more information about nutritional services at Rush visit our Food and Nutritional Services home page.
- Looking for a dietitian? Call (312) 942-DIET (3438)
- Looking for a doctor? Call toll free: 888 352-RUSH (7874)
Please note: All physicians featured in Discover Rush Online are on the medical faculty of Rush University Medical Center. Some of the physicians featured are in private practice and, as independent practitioners, are not agents or employees of Rush University Medical Center.
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