Dietary Fat

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People need to consume dietary fat to be healthy. Besides functioning as a source of energy, fat is essential for proper growth and development. Without it, cells would not form properly and nutrients, hormones and other life-essential chemicals could not enter and exit cells.

Fat shapes our bodies, helps maintain our body's temperature and protects our bones. It surrounds the brain, heart, kidneys, liver and spinal cord to shield them from injury. So, how do we get into trouble with fat when it is necessary for so many bodily functions? Fat is much more calorie dense than carbohydrates and protein. Dietary fats provide nine calories per gram, so the calories from fat can add up quickly. In addition, our bodies store excess calories from fat more easily than fat from carbohydrates.

Dietary fats add flavor and a pleasant mouth-feel to foods. Fat makes convenience and fast foods better tasting and comforting - but also higher in calories. Dietary fats contribute smoothness to ice cream, increase the flakiness of baked goods, make cookies and crackers turn out right and leave us with a feeling of fullness hours longer than either carbohydrates or protein. However, research has shown that eating too much fat can not only cause weight gain but also increase the risk of developing heart disease, certain types of cancer and diabetes.

Most of us think of foods such as butter, margarine and vegetable when we think of fats, but fats are found in almost all our foods. Saturated fat is found in animal products, such as meat and dairy products, foods made from animal products and palm and coconut oil. Saturated fat has been linked to increasing LDL cholesterol levels in the body. High LDL cholesterol levels is strongly associated with heart disease.

Monounsaturated fat -- found in avocados, nuts, peanut butter and canola oil, almond and olive oils -- is one of the healthier types of fat to eat. It is thought to benefit heart health by lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol without lowering protective HDL (good) cholesterol.

Polyunsaturated fat is found in fatty fish, such as salmon and mackerel; and corn, soybean, safflower and sunflower oils. Consuming polyunsaturated fat may help lower bad cholesterol, but in large quantities may also lower good cholesterol. An important exception is the omega-3 polyunsaturated fats, found in fish such as salmon and tuna. This fat protects against heart disease and stroke. In addition, polyunsaturated oils that have been hydrogenated act more like saturated fat in terms of heart health.

What to Do

Consuming a moderate amount of dietary fat and making smart fat choices are the first steps toward weight management and decreasing your risk of disease. Generally, for an adult, 20 to 30-percent (about 60 grams) of total calories per day should come from fat. Based on a 2,000 calorie a day intake, less than 20 grams should come from saturated fat and the remaining 20 to 40 grams should come from mono- and polyunsaturated fats. If your diet is too high in total fat or saturated fat, try some of the following ideas for healthy eating:

Increase intake of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Try low fat dairy products and lean cuts of meat, such as round and loin cuts.

Consider replacing some of your meat with beans or tofu.

Try to eat fish once or twice a week.

Check the fat content listed on food labels. The label will list the fat grams per serving as well as the type of fat. Choose foods containing monounsaturated or non-hydrogenated fats.

Try low fat recipes.

Many fast food restaurants post nutrition information for their menus. Check the fat listings and choose lower fat menu items.

Reading food labels and modifying recipes are two ways to start lowering fat consumption. Low fat food is not just rice cakes and celery sticks. So many people associate low fat with low taste. That just is not the case with the use of herbs, spices, vegetable purees and reductions (chicken and beef stock or a wine sauce simmered to reduce the volume through evaporation). Classic dishes such as lasagna can be low fat by substituting no fat cottage cheese for ricotta cheese and/or a no-fat mozzarella cheese for regular cheese. Low fat does not equal no taste.

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