Fat gives a smooth, creamy "mouth feel" and greatly enhances flavor. For these reasons, most people love fat. Our bodies also need fat in order to absorb certain vitamins and to function normally. However, medical findings have confirmed that too much consumption of fat can cause such serious problems as obesity, heart disease, and cancer. Total fat intake is perhaps especially a concern for older people. For example, a recent study of women over the age of 60 suggests that a fatty meal, regardless of the type of fats involved, causes levels of a clotting factor in the blood to rise. This may increase the risk of stroke or heart attack.
Reducing total fat consumption is only part of the picture, for other studies have indicated that not all fats are created equal. There are "bad" fats and there are those that are considered "good". Let’s qualify them:
The "bad" fats:
Leading the "villains" are saturated fats which contribute to heart disease and have been associated with cancers of the lung, colon, and prostate. They are found in beef, pork, lamb, processed meats (examples, hot dogs and bologna), tropical oils (examples, palm and coconut), whole milk, butter, lard, cream, and ice cream. Saturated fats raise harmful low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels, clogging arteries and increasing the probability of a heart attack. Health authorities recommend that saturated fat should normally account for no more than 10 percent of your total caloric intake. Other health experts set a maximum limit of 7 percent for those with heart disease. It is suggested that you always check food labels for saturated-fat content: In a diet of 2,000 calories a day, 22 grams of saturated fat is about 10 percent of calories; 15 grams about 7 percent. Keep in mind that a gram of fat contains 9 calories.
There are artificially hardened vegetable oils which are used by some food manufacturers to increase the shelf life of certain foods. These "partially hydrogenated" oils usually contain an unnatural structural makeup of fats called Trans fats. They appear in many processed foods: hard margarines, vegetable shortenings, commercial baked goods, and deep-fried foods prepared in restaurants. Trans fats have turned out to be equal to unsaturated fats in terms of being bad to the heart – maybe even worse. Besides raising levels of harmful LDL cholesterol, they may also lower levels of beneficial high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. There are other problems that Trans fat may present. For example, a study of 700 postmenopausal European women found that those who ate the most Trans fats had a 40 percent higher risk of breast cancer than did those who ate the least.
Other food manufacturers rely on a variety of ingredients to provide the texture and flavor of fat. Examples of these ingredients are gums, emulsifiers, soluble fiber, and protein-sugar combinations. A product called olestra has been approved by health authorities in the United States for sale. This product is used in some fried snack foods, such as potato chips. Olestra’s fat-sugar molecules are so large that they pass out of the body unabsorbed. Unfortunately, they take with them carotenoids, beneficial plant compounds that may help prevent cancer. Likewise, olestra-laced snacks may cause abdominal cramps and diarrhea.
The "good" fats:
Some fats can actually be beneficial to your health. Natural, unhydrogenated vegetable oils are primarily unsaturated and they lower LDL cholesterol levels. That’s true of both monounsaturated fats (the kind in olive and canola oils) and polyunsaturated fats (the kind in corn, sunflower, and safflower oils). Monounsaturated oils are probably the healthiest of all the oils. They are preferable because they are more stable and less likely to form free radicals, unstable oxygen molecules that may increase the risk of cancer. Studies conducted in four different countries in Europe (Greece, Italy, Spain, and Sweden) linked olive oil and other sources of monounsaturates with a decreased risk of breast cancer. This doesn’t mean though that you should guzzle olive oil, especially at about 120 calories per tablespoon. Some experts advise that in a diet in which 30 percent of calories come from fat, about 15 percent should come from monounsaturates. With a lower intake of total fat, about half should come from monounsaturates.
A good alternative to olive oil is canola oil which is versatile in cooking and contains the plant form of the omega-3 fats found in fish oil. Omega-3 fats inhibit blood clotting, further reducing the risk of heart attack. Foods that contain monounsaturated fats include avocados, nuts, and seeds.
Finally, be aware that there’s no evidence that lower-fat products help in weight loss. Low-fat and fat-free foods aid in weight control only if they contain fewer calories than their higher-fat cousins – and only if you consume them with a similar eye toward moderation.