By: Kris Sollid, RD Date: 10/26/11
Let’s play a quick game of nutrition word association. I’m going to give you a word and I want you to remember the first thought or image that comes to your mind. Ready?...Low-Fat. What did you think of? Did it have a positive or negative connotation for you? It wasn’t so long ago that eating healthfully was as simple as eating low-fat. If only it were that simple. Unfortunately, the low-fat mantra is entrenched in the minds of many consumers to this day and continues to obscure the beneficial role of fats in our health. Recently, I had the enlightening opportunity to get the lowdown on low-fat at a briefing in New York from Dr. Eric Decker, Professor of Food Science at the University of Massachusetts and Bonnie Taub Dix, MS, RD, Author of Read it Before You Eat It. Here’s some of what I learned.
WE NEED FAT IN OUR DIET
There are many reasons why we need fat in our diets, but the bioavailability of key nutrients may be the most intriguing. Wait, say that again…bioavailability? In plain language, the bioavailability of nutrients refers to our body’s ability to absorb the nutrients contained within our food. In many cases, the amount absorbed can depend on the amount of fat consumed. Take lycopene, for example. A study published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that lycopene is more thoroughly absorbed when consumed in a salad containing full-fat dressing when compared to a reduced-fat dressing. The same study found essentially no absorption when a fat-free dressing was used.
EAT MORE OMEGA-3’s
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in both plant (canola and soybean oil, walnuts, soybeans, and flaxseed) and marine (oily fish, such as tuna and salmon) sources. Plant sources of omega-3 contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and marine sources contain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The body can convert ALA into EPA and DHA, but research suggests consuming more of the latter can further benefit our health. Studies show EPA and DHA have the strongest impact on inflammation, cardiovascular disease, and mental health—particularly when we get 0.5-1.0 g DHA + EPA/day. However, US men average intake of DHA + EPA is only <0.01g/day. Increasing our EPA and DHA intakes is important, but it’s also important to recognize the barriers associated with our low intake levels—cost, personal preference, and availability to name a few. That said, if marine sources of omega-3 aren’t an option for you, don’t forget that plant sources are an omega-3 option as well.
*Tip: If you cook with vegetable oil or take omega-3 supplements, keep them in the refrigerator. The cooler temps keep them fresher longer. Additionally, when shopping for omega-3 supplements, look for varieties with DHA on the label, as not all contain DHA.
STRIVE FOR HEALTHY FATS, BUT WATCH YOUR PORTIONS
Many people may assume that all fats are the same, each with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. The reality is that there are many different types of fats and it’s the type that matters most. Liquid oils that are naturally high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats include canola, corn, olive, safflower, soybean, and sunflower oils. Foods that contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are avocados, nuts, and fish. It’s advised that these beneficial fats and oils be included in the diet, but even though they are considered healthful, portion control shouldn’t be ignored. For example, 1 teaspoon of olive oil has only 40 calories, but 1 cup contains 2,000 calories. So remember, we have the freedom to make healthful choices, but that doesn’t mean our choices are free from calories.
THE ROLE OF FOOD SCIENCE
Dietary guidance generally recommends that oils replace solid fats in the diet, but this can’t be done with all foods. Take baked goods for example, there’s a reason why specific fats are used in these foods. The types of fat used in pastries and other baked goods provides them with the physical appearance, texture, and volume we love and expect—your croissant wouldn’t be as mouth-wateringly good without the right kind of fat.
Let me hear your low-down on low-fat. What was the first thought that came to your mind in our game of nutrition word association?
For more info on Dietary Fats check out IFIC’s new CPE and other great resources:
The Dietary Fats Makeover: Guiding Consumers toward Healthful Dietary Fat Intakes CPE Module
Fat Matters: Understanding Dietary Guidance on Dietary Fats
The Truth about Fats and Oils and Health
Healthy Eating During Pregnancy