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Fat Facts: Good Fats vs. Bad Fats

The right fats are actually good for you.

The Facts on Unhealthy Saturated Fat continued...

Saturated fat is concentrated in fatty meats, and full-fat dairy foods including cheese, ice cream, and whole milk. Animal foods supply most saturated fat in our diet. But highly saturated vegetable fats such as coconut oil, palm, palm kernel oil, and cocoa butter are also unhealthy. They're widely used in packaged foods including milk chocolate, cookies, crackers, and snack chips.

There's no dietary requirement for saturated fat because your body produces all that it needs. Yet, there's no need to completely avoid foods with saturated fat in the name of good health.  Foods such as meat, cheese, and milk pack a multitude of nutrients such as protein, vitamins, and minerals. Just try to keep saturated fat to less than 7% of all the fat you eat.

The Facts on Trans Fat: A Bad Fat in a League of Its Own

Like saturated fat, trans fat contributes to clogged arteries. Even worse, it's been linked to certain cancers, including breast and colorectal, in population studies. 

Researchers from Harvard School of Public Health have estimated that eliminating trans fats from the American diet could prevent about a quarter of a million heart attacks and related deaths every year. 

Trace amounts of naturally-occurring trans fat are present in fatty meats and full-fat dairy foods.  But, by far, most of the trans fat we eat is the end product of hydrogenation. Hydrogenation (the addition of hydrogen) converts oil into a firmer, tastier product with a longer shelf life. In the process, some of the unsaturated fat in the oil becomes saturated.

Partially hydrogenated fat -- trans fat -- is gradually being removed from most packaged foods. But it's still found in some stick margarine, shortening, fast food, cookies, crackers, granola bars, and microwave popcorn.

There is no dietary requirement for trans fat, although it's nearly impossible to completely avoid.  It helps to read nutrition food labels, but there's a hitch.

"Even when the food label lists the trans fat content of a processed food as zero, a serving may contain up to nearly half a gram of trans fat by law," says Karmally.

Small amounts of some "trans-fat-free" foods can really add up.  For example, a box of cookies labeled "0 trans fats" could actually have half a gram per serving. Thus four cookies could contain close to 2 grams of trans fat -- the upper limit suggested for many adults.

3 Easy Ways to Avoid Bad Fats

Here are three simple ways to avoid bad fats, including trans fat:

1.       Avoid packaged foods when possible. Instead, choose whole foods, or foods you make at home. For example, you can make your own macaroni and cheese from scratch, or your own flavored rice mixes.

2.       Eat lean sources of protein, low-fat dairy foods, whole grains, legumes -- such as garbanzo beans and black beans -- and fruits and vegetables.

3.       Use healthy oils such as olive, canola, and sunflower oil, and small amounts of tub margarine for cooking and flavoring foods.

"It takes more than counting fat grams to protect your health," Lichtenstein says.

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Reviewed on October 30, 2008

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