For decades, Americans have been warned to ferret the fat from their diets. Although most people know that some types of fat are bad and some are good for them, many can't tell one fat from another, a calorie from a gram of fat, or whether blood cholesterol is different from the cholesterol in an egg yolk. For example, can you correctly answer the following?
What has more calories, a tablespoon of lard or a tablespoon of olive oil?
Is the cholesterol in egg yolks the "good" (HDL) or "bad" (LDL) kind?
Can you burn off cholesterol by exercising?
Here to set the record straight on fats is Elizabeth Somer, registered dietitian and author of Age-Proof Your Body.
1. True/False: The bad fats, such as saturated fats in butter and lard, have more calories and are more fattening than the good fats in olive oil.
Answer: False. All fats supply 9 calories per gram. A tablespoon of any fat, be it lard, canola oil, or margarine, contains the same calorie dose (i.e., approximately 110 calories). Don’t feel bad if you got this one wrong; in a FDA study, only one in every five people knew the right answer. Of course, the good fats in olive oil, nuts, avocados, and such help protect your heart from heart disease, but that’s only if you consume them in reasonable amounts. Too many calories from anything can pack on the pounds and the number one risk factor for heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and other diseases is excess body fat.
2. True/False: People who exercise have lower blood cholesterol levels because they burn this fat for energy.
False. While cholesterol is a fat-soluble substance, it has no calories and you cannot “burn” it during exercise.
3. True/False: Fat makes you fat.
False. Protein, carbs, and fat all supply calories. And, yes it is true that fat supplies more than twice the calories per teaspoon of the other two, or 9 calories/gram vs 4 calories/gram, respectively. It is easy for the calories to accumulate with fat because it is so calorie-dense. But, fat is only fattening when you eat too much, and that is true for anything, whether it is the protein in a slice of turkey, the carbs in a muffin, or the fat in salad dressing or French fries.
4. True/False: Lean meat is ok to eat for most people because it contains the “good” cholesterol, called HDL-cholesterol.
False: Yes, diets loaded with cheese, red meat, and other foods dripping in saturated fats tend to raise blood cholesterol levels, which increases heart-disease and possibly colon cancer risk, but HDL- and LDL-cholesterol are not found in food. These are terms for carriers of cholesterol in your blood. Just as homemade oil-and-vinegar dressing separates into a watery pool with a fat-slick topping, so also would fats if they were dumped directly into the blood. To solve this dilemma, the body transports fats by coating them with a water-soluble "bubble" of protein called a lipoprotein (lipo = fat). Low-density lipoproteins (LDLs) carry cholesterol out to the tissues. This is the "bad" cholesterol since high LDL levels are linked to increased risk for atherosclerosis and heart disease. High-density lipoproteins (HDLs) carry excess cholesterol back to the liver where it is processed and excreted. HDLs are the "good" cholesterol; the more HDL you have, the lower your risk for developing heart disease.
5. True/False: Just because a label say’s “0 trans fats” doesn’t mean it is trans-fat free.
True: Hydrogenated fats are liquid vegetable oils made creamy when manufacturers convert some of the unsaturated fats into saturated ones through a process called hydrogenation. This process also rearranges some of the remaining unsaturated fats so their natural "cis" shape is transformed into an abnormal "trans" shape. Those trans fats have been linked to a high risk for heart disease and possibly other health risks, even infertility. So, food manufacturers have started pulling some of the trans fats out of their products. However, if they keep the serving size small, they can sneak under the radar since they are only required to list trans fats on the label if there is more than 0.5 grams/serving. Eat more than one serving of crackers, cookies, cupcakes, or anything made with hydrogenated fats, even when they say “trans free” and you could still be getting an unhealthy dose of these damaging fats. Go to the Ingredients List and make sure the produce isn’t made with hydrogenated vegetable oil or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, a clear indicator that trans fats are in the food. Also, reformulating a Ding Dong so it is trans-free does not convert this junk food into a health food!
6. True/False: A label on a package of hamburger reads "95% fat free." This means the meat contains only 5% of its calories from fat.
False: It means the beef is 5% fat by weight. The calories from fat may still be up to 35% or more.
Low-fat milk is another tricky one. The label says 2% fat, which means that fat makes up 2% of the weight of the milk; fat calories are 35%. In fact, 2% milk is very close to whole milk in its fat content. You are better off with 1% low-fat milk or nonfat milk.
7. True/False: A label on olive oil states the product is "extra light." This means it is lighter in color and flavor, not that it has fewer calories or saturated fat.
8. True/False: A MacDonald’s Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese has 8 teaspoons of fat.
False: It has almost 11 teaspoons of fat. It’s amazing this item can hold together since more than 50% of its calories come from grease!
9. True/False: Fat can be good for you.
True. While you don’t need even a gram of saturated or trans fats and would be better off cutting them down or completely out of the diet, there are some fats you absolutely cannot do without. Besides being an energy source, the omega-3 fats in salmon and other fatty fish lower the risk for heart disease, dementia, depression, Alzheimer’s, Parkinsons, rheumatoid arthritis, and more. A type of fat, called linoleic acid, found in nuts, seeds, and oils is an essential nutrient that our bodies must get from the diet to prevent dry skin and nerve damage. Fat in the diet also is essential for absorbing the fat-soluble vitamins (A,D,E, and K) and many of the antioxidant-rich phytonutrients, such as lycopene. For example, people who eat salsa made with avocado (which is rich in healthy monounsaturated fats) absorb four times more vitamin A from the tomatoes than do those who nosh on nonfat salsa.
10. True/False: Flaxseed is a great way to get your omega-3 fats.
True and False. If all you want is to lower your heart-disease risk, then flax, walnuts, or soy will work just fine. But the omega-3 fat in these plants, called ALA, is not effective for much else. In contrast, the omega-3s in salmon and fatty fish, called EPA and DHA, lower heart disease risk, and also lower the risk for all those conditions I just mentioned, from depression to Alzheimers. Something flax can’t do. Your best bets are salmon, mackerel, herring, and sardines, and aim for at least two servings a week. Surprisingly, although tilapia is one of the fastest growing fish in popularity, it actually has a fat profile that is closer to beef than seafood. I would not count this as one of your two recommended weekly servings of fish.
11. True/False: Peanut butter labeled as “cholesterol-free” is no healthier than other peanut butters.
True. Cholesterol is only in animal products, such as meat, dairy, and eggs. It is not in vegetables, beans, nuts, grains (unless the muffin has eggs in it!), etc.
The bottom line: When you include fats in your diet, make sure most of them are healthful ones from fatty fish, avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil. Keep in mind that serving size is important, since the calories in these foods can add up fast, but small amounts can lower your risk for all major diseases, and even help you lose weight.