Misconceptions about Fat in Food

People talk to me all the time about the "f" word - yes, they always talk to me about fat. The fat in their diet, the fat on their bodies -- fat seems to be the favorite topic of conversation. In the course of my professional career, I have heard all kinds of misconceptions about fat. These misconceptions can cause unnecessary weight gain and damage health either because of eating a diet that is too low in fat or because of eating the wrong kind of fat. Here are the most common misconceptions I have heard about dietary fat.

The best diet is a non-fat diet.
You cannot survive without some fat in your diet. Your body needs fat for energy, as insulation (otherwise the slightest breeze would make you shiver), as a shock absorber (that's why your internal organs don't "bump" into each other whenever you ride a car in our pothole-filled streets), to make hormones, and to absorb fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K. You also need fat to make your skin supple and prevent your hair from becoming brittle.

So how much fat do you need in your diet? Most nutritionists recommend that not more than 30% of your total daily calories come from fat.

All fats are bad.
It's true that all fats are loaded with calories but some fats like monounsaturated (olive and canola oil) and polyunsaturated (fish oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, etc.) fats protect your heart while others like saturated (animal fat, coconut oil, palm oil) fat and trans-fatty acids (found in products made with hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oil) have been implicated in heart disease.

"100% vegetable oil" means its safe for your heart.
Before you fall for this "hook, line, and sinker", check the fine print. If you see the words "hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil", that product may not be the best for your heart. Hydrogenated oils are unsaturated oils that have been bombarded with extra hydrogen atoms in a process called hydrogenation. Hydrogenation is what turns a liquid oil into a hard fat like stick margarine. Some scientists believe that hydrogenated oils act just like saturated fats inside the body. In other words, they can raise your cholesterol levels and clog up your arteries. And there is more bad news. Hydrogenated oils also contain trans-fatty acids (TFAs) which in a study of 80,000 nurses was found to carry a higher risk for heart disease than saturated fat. Until more conclusive evidence comes in, it would be prudent to avoid products with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils.

What's good for your heart may not be good for your hips.
Dipping your bread in olive oil instead of smearing it with butter may be good for your heart but not necessarily good for your hips if you are trying to lose weight. One dinner roll can easily absorb one tablespoon of oil. The calories from the roll and the olive oil equal approximately 170 calories - this is before you have even had your soup or salad!

If you are trying to control your weight, it is wise to remember that all fats contain the same number of calories per gram - nine. It doesn't matter where the fat comes from - olive oil, sunflower seeds, pork fat, butter, mayonnaise, cashew nuts, etc.

"No cholesterol" means the food has no fat.
Cholesterol is a type of fat called a sterol that is manufactured in the livers of humans and animals. Since plants don't have a liver, you will only find cholesterol in animal products like beef, pork, chicken, eggs, milk, and cheese (seafood like crabs and lobsters also contain cholesterol). Plant food like avocado and peanuts don't have cholesterol but definitely are high in fat. The next time you see "no cholesterol" on the front label of a food product, check the back label for the exact amount of fat or calories. Also, another warning: Just because it has no fat and no cholesterol doesn't mean the food isn't high in calories because the calories can come from other sources like carbohydrates or protein.

"Non-fat" doesn't mean zero calories.
This is a big misunderstanding that can lead to a big weight problem because many people think that the words "non-fat" gives them the license to eat double or triple portions. Fat is not the only source of calories. Carbohydrates and protein have calories too. The bottom line to remember is that excess calories (calories you don't need), no matter from what source, are what make you fat.

Watch out too for terms like "low-fat" which mean that the food has less than three grams of fat per serving. You might find that the serving sizes are ridiculously small and a "normal" portion for you might actually mean four servings, in which case, you are already gulping down 12 grams of fat.

"Reduced fat" can also be misleading because it simply means that a food product has 25% less fat than the original version. Well, if the original product had 20 grams of fat per serving, the "reduced fat" version with 15 grams of fat per serving is still quite a hefty dose of fat.

"All natural ingredients" means it's not fattening.
A honey-coated granola bar is a healthy "natural" snack but it is by no means low in calories or fat. The words "all natural" only mean that the ingredients are not highly processed and have no bearing at all on the caloric or fat content of the product. The moral of the story: If you are trying to lose weight, read the nutritional label and find out how many the calories and fat grams the product really has.

Beef and pork are more fattening than chicken.
Beef and pork are not automatically more fattening than chicken. It all depends on the size of the portion, the type of cut and the method of cooking. Let's look at some examples (all are based on a three-ounce serving, the pork and beef have had all visible fat removed, and the source is the USDA Handbook). Warning: You may not feel so righteous eating that chicken after you read this.

Broiled pork tenderloin has 3 grams of fat and 67 milligrams of cholesterol. Broiled beef tenderloin has 9 grams of fat and 71 milligrams of cholesterol. A chicken thigh, fried, with the skin on has 26 grams of fat and 121 milligrams of cholesterol. A chicken breast, fried, with the skin on has 13 grams of fat and 83 milligrams of cholesterol. A chicken breast, boiled, without the skin has 3 grams of fat and 73 milligrams of cholesterol.

As you can easily see, in terms of fat and cholesterol, you are better off eating the broiled pork or beef tenderloin than eating the fried chicken thigh. Don't immediately assume that beef or pork are "evil" - eaten occasionally in small portions, with the right cut and cooking method, they can fit into a healthy diet.

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