Part 1

The role of dietary fat is one of the most commonly misunderstood areas of nutrition. In recent years a clear link has been established between the consumption of fat and heart disease, as well as many forms of cancer, diabetes and other health problems. We often hear it said that some kinds of fats are better for you than others. It would be more accurate to say that some kinds of fats are even more harmful than others. Any types of fats added to your diet are potentially harmful. What is most misunderstood is that, without adding any fat or oil, we get all the fat we need from a well-balanced diet of vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, and fruit.

Fats have many important functions. They store energy until it is needed and insulate the body with adipose cells that can expand like balloons. They also keep hair and skin healthy. Fats supply essential fatty acids (elements the body cannot make by itself) which help control blood pressure and other body functions through hormone-like compounds. Fats in food also give the feeling of being full for a longer time, since they slow down the process of digestion.

Americans consume more than 40% of their calories from fats. It's easier to get your calories from fats because ounce for ounce they contain more than twice as many calories as protein or carbohydrates. Even small amounts of oil have more calories than most people realize. A tablespoon of any kind of oil (13.5 grams) has over 120 calories. Many recipes call for a quarter of a cup of oil, adding nearly 1,000 calories.

Nutritional measures are usually listed in grams. There are 28 grams in an ounce. A common paper clip weighs about one half of one gram (500 milligrams). A small avocado, after being peeled and pitted, will yield slightly more than an ounce (33 grams) of edible fruit. With 94% of its calories from fat, that small portion, about 2 tablespoons, has 280 calories.

Almost all health authorities agree that we should cut down on our intake of fats. Some of them would be happy if we reduced the amount by a quarter of the average American intake, to 30% of our calories. Others say it needs to be cut in half to 20%. Drs. Ornish and McDougall, along with many others who have thoroughly studied this subject, have determined that we can get all our nutritional requirements for an active and productive life with just 10% of our calories from fat. Maintaining this 10% level is essential to reverse heart disease, prevent and fight some kinds of cancers and benefit the immune system. It also has a significant effect in reducing arthritis, allergies, diabetes and other cardiovascular-related illnesses.

Fats, also called lipids, are found in foods as triglycerides, so called because they have three fatty acids attached to a glycerol molecule. Edible fats are divided into three types; saturated, mono-unsaturated and polyunsaturated. Fats high in saturated fatty acids are commonly solid at room temperature. Butter and most animal fats are examples. These saturated fats (fully saturated with hydrogen atoms) raise cholesterol and are a primary contributor to heart disease. Monounsaturated (which can carry more hydrogen) and polyunsaturated fats (which are the least loaded with hydrogen atoms) are also called oils because they usually remain liquid at room temperature. There are claims that some unsaturated oils will help reduce cholesterol, but they actually have little beneficial effect unless they are used as a substitute for saturated fats. A balanced diet of vegetables, legumes, grains and fruits will lower cholesterol more quickly and safely and contain enough fats to meet our nutritional needs.

Comparison of Various Fats:
    Saturated, Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated
Rounded to nearest whole number.     (13.5 grams = one tablespoon)
Ranked in order of increasing danger for cholesterol and heart disease.
OIL (1T)SaturatedMonounsaturatedPolyunsaturated
(13.5 grams)gramsgramsgrams
Margarine *244
* Margarine has about 11 grams of fat per 13.5 gram tablespoon, the rest is water, flavors and fillers.  "Light" margarines have more water, fillers, and air, and may have fewer grams of fat per tablespoon.

This comparison chart shows different commonly used oils and some animal fats. All have the same fat content per gram, but the saturated portion varies greatly. Because an oil has fewer saturated fats does not make it good for you. All oils are 100% fat. Food can be sauted in water, soy sauce, wine or balsamic vinegar and although it will take a bit longer at a reduced heat, the full flavor of most foods can be brought out without oils. Onion and garlic can be browned in a non-stick pan with a little water, and as they caramelize, they are just as sweet as when cooked in oil. Many spices can be roasted or broiled to bring out their flavor, either in a conventional oven or microwave. Most margarines are made from vegetable oils, water, and sometimes a stabilizer or gelatin. Whipped margarines have air blended into them. To make these oils solid at room temperature, they are hydrogenated (by adding hydrogen atoms), a process that gives them nearly the same qualities as saturated fats. The body treats them as saturated fats, and they are as harmful as naturally saturated fats in raising blood cholesterol.

Next: Fats, part 2

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©1994, 1996, 2002
Dr. Neal Pinckney
Healing Heart Foundation