By: Dr. Michelle MD
Dear Dr. Michelle,
I want to give my family a healthful diet, but I am not sure of what proper nutrition is. I am very confused about the subject of Fat. I just do not understand which fats I should be giving my family to eat. What is unsaturated fat, what is saturated fat, and what is trans-fat? Do you think that we should all be on a low-fat diet? Could you please explain?
It is no wonder you are confused. The nutritional advice that has been offered by the medical profession, in regards to fats in diets, is often very confusing, and it changes all the time. There are a lot more overweight children and adults than there were 20 years ago. Life-threatening diseases such as Diabetes and Coronary Artery Disease are common in these people. For the first time, the life expectancy of the American population is going down. There has been a lot of research into why this has happened.
High-fat diets and lack of exercise are contributing factors to the obesity epidemic in the U.S. About ten years ago, the experts started recommending that Americans try to eat a diet that is very limited in all fats. They thought that this would cause us to eat fewer calories in total. High sugar, low-fat snack products were made by many manufacturers to capture the snack food market. The results were terrible! While restricting their fat intake, people starting eating more and more sugar and starch. The obesity epidemic got much worse! The experts recently changed their advice. They now differentiate different kinds of starches and fats. They now recommend that we eat a traditional balanced diet which includes starches, sugars, and fat in reasonable amounts—but only the good ones.
Here are the basic guidelines:
The diet should be full of unprocessed foods. Vegetables and fruits, nuts, and legumes such as peanuts and beans and whole grains are all good. The starches should be high fiber grains and legumes and vegetables. The sugars should be mostly the ones already found in the food, such as fruits and sweet potatoes. Added sugars are OK but not in excess. It is essential to know that growing children need plenty of fats in their diets because growth requires a lot of calories, and fat has double the amount of calories found in proteins and carbohydrates. Because toddlers don’t eat a lot at a meal, they need a higher percentage of fat in their diets to get enough caloric energy to grow on.
The fats should be mostly unsaturated fats such as avocado, canola oil, olive oil, nut oils (not palm oil). Oils found in fish are also usually unsaturated. Most vegetable oils such as corn oil, are OK, but not as beneficial as the unsaturated oils. Peanut oil is OK, but there is a problem with processed peanut butter. In commercial peanut butter, the peanut protein is used, but the peanut oil is extracted and replaced with trans-fats, which makes the product creamier and keeps it from separating. For this reason, natural style peanut butter, which has to be mixed and refrigerated, is a much better choice.
The fats naturally found in meats, poultry, and dairy products are saturated fats. They should be restricted by eating mostly leaner cuts and low-fat milk products. Moderate amounts of these are OK in a healthy diet. The fats found in most packaged treats and snacks are often “bad fats.” These are trans-fats. They were invented by chemists about 100 years ago. The first one was Crisco. This mixed vegetable oil is used commercially. It makes food taste better and lasts longer on the shelf.
Most margarine, cookies and crackers, chips and fried foods like French fries and even fish sticks usually have trans-fats. They are listed on the labels as “partially hydrogenated soy or vegetable oil,” “vegetable shortening,” and trans fatty acids. Trans-fats are known to cause heart disease by increasing LDL (bad cholesterol) and decreasing HDL (good cholesterol). Since the American population is so used to eating packaged products and fast foods, the experts think trans-fats may be making people both fat and sick. There is no amount of trans-fat, that is good. Many state and local governments are passing laws to eliminate trans-fats from restaurant foods.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that we should all be eating mostly everyday foods that are not processed as fast or snack foods. It has always been my feeling that if we restrict candy, cake, and chips and eat them only on special occasions, we would all consume a better diet, and we would enjoy the junk more as part of a birthday party treat!