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HEALTHY LIVING — Low fat, no fat, fat free: What to choose?

Low fat! No fat! Fat free! All of these labels can be quite confusing.

All we hear and read is that fat is bad for us. It causes heart problems and it makes us overweight. That certainly can be true, but we actually need fats — can’t live without them.

In fact, fats are an important part of a healthy diet: They provide essential fatty acids, keep our skin soft, deliver fat-soluble vitamins, and are a great source of energizing fuel. But it’s easy to get confused about good fats vs. bad fats, how much fat we should eat, how to avoid artery-clogging trans fats, and the role omega-3 fatty acids play in heart health.

The USDA Dietary Guidelines recommend that adults get 20-35% of their calories from fats. At a minimum, we need at least 10% of our calories to come from fat.

The problem is that the typical diet is higher in fat: Roughly 34- 40% of our calories come from fat. Why? Because they taste so good and are widely available. Fats enhance the flavors of foods and give foods that wonderful feel that is so satisfying.

Dietary fat plays a significant role in obesity. Fat is calorie-dense, at 9 calories per gram, while carbs and protein have only 4 calories per gram, and alcohol has 7 calories per gram.

It’s easy to overeat fats because they lurk in so many foods we love: French fries, processed foods, cakes, cookies, chocolate, ice cream, thick steaks, and cheese.

Eating too much fat does more than expand our waistlines. Our love affair with fat has helped to trigger an increase in the rates of type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, and heart disease.

While choosing healthier fats is better for your heart, when it comes to your waistline, all fats have about the same number of calories. Cutting the total fat in your diet not only helps you shed pounds, it can also help you live longer and healthier.

There are two groups of fats: saturated and unsaturated. Let’s start with the good guys — the unsaturated fats. They include polyunsaturated fatty acids and monounsaturated fats.

Both mono- and polyunsaturated fats, when eaten in moderation and used to replace saturated or trans fats, can help lower cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of heart disease. Polyunsaturated fats, found mostly in vegetable oils, help lower both blood cholesterol levels and triglyceride levels — especially when you substitute them for saturated fats.

One type of polyunsaturated fat is omega-3 fatty acids, whose potential heart-health benefits have gotten a lot of attention. Omega-3s are found in fatty fish (salmon, trout, catfish, mackerel), as well as flaxseed and walnuts. And it’s fish that contains the most effective type of omega-3s.

The American Heart Association recommends eating 2 servings of fatty fish each week. Monounsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature but solidify if refrigerated. These heart-healthy fats are typically a good source of the antioxidant vitamin E, a nutrient often lacking in diets. They can be found in olives; avocados; hazelnuts; almonds; Brazil nuts; cashews; sesame seeds; pumpkin seeds; and olive, canola, and peanut oils.

Now, for the bad guys. There are two types of fat that should be eaten sparingly: saturated and trans fatty acids. Both can raise cholesterol levels, clog arteries, and increase the risk for heart disease. Saturated fats are found in animal products (meat, poultry skin, high-fat dairy, and eggs) and in vegetable fats that are liquid at room temperature, such as coconut and palm oils.

The USDA Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting saturated fats to 10% or less of your total calories, while the American Heart Association recommends keeping them to just 7% of total calories. The real worries in these are the artificial trans fats. They’re used extensively in frying, baked goods, cookies, icings, crackers, packaged snack foods, microwave popcorn, and some margarine.

Bottom line, take the time to read those labels and make better choices. Live healthy, my friends.

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