All About Dietary Fat and Cholesterol

We need some fat in our diets to be healthy. We just don't need a lot of it. When we follow a gluten-free diet, the nutritional composition of our diet may change. Unfortunately, if we consume fewer carbohydrates because many familiar grain foods are off limits, we may increase our fat intake by adding fatty foods to replace the foods we can no longer eat. However, awareness of this pitfall can help you avoid it. The information in this section will help you limit your fat intake as well as choose the right kind of fat.

Dietary fat is the most concentrated source of food energy, providing more than twice the number of calories per gram as carbohydrate or protein. One gram of fat contains 9 calories, while each gram of carbohydrate or protein contains 4 calories. Fat provides you with essential fatty acids and helps your body absorb the fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, and K).

Fats are found in both animal and plant foods. They are classified as saturated, polyunsaturated, or monounsaturated, depending on the major fatty acid they contain. These various types of fatty acids have different chemical structures and therefore different effects on the body. Saturated fatty acids are the major fatty acids in animal fats (meat, poultry, milk, eggs) and tropical oils (palm, palm kernel, coconut). Saturated fats are generally solid at room temperature. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are found in vegetable oils such as canola, peanut, olive, safflower, sunflower, corn, and soybean. They also are the main fats in fish, nuts, seeds, olives, and avocados. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats tend to be liquid at room temperature.

Another type of fat is trans fat or trans-fatty acids. While some trans fat occurs naturally in food, it is primarily a manufactured fat, created when hydrogen is added to liquid fat (such as vegetable oil) to make solid fat (such as margarine). The addition of hydrogen to liquid fats is called hydrogenation. Manufacturers use hydrogenated fats in products to increase their shelf life. Trans fat is found in any food whose ingredients include partially hydrogenated vegetable oil; such foods may include margarine, vegetable shortening, and snack foods (crackers, cookies, potato chips). Since January 1, 2006, the Food and Drug Administration has required that trans fat be included on the Nutrition Facts label.

Science Class

On some processed food products, the Nutrition Facts label lists the trans fat content as 0, even though the list of ingredients includes hydrogenated oil. How can this apparently contradictory information be true? Under FDA regulations, a manufacturer may state on the label that a product contains 0 grams of trans fat as long as the product contains less than 0.5 gram of trans fat per product serving.

Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2005 recommends that fat intake be kept at 20 to 35 percent of calories. Less than 10 percent of calories should come from saturated fat, and intake of trans fat should be kept as low as possible. The American Heart Association has slightly stricter recommendations, suggesting that saturated-fat intake should be less than 7 percent of calories, and trans fat less than 1 percent of calories.

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