Know Your Fats

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As part of National Nutrition Month, our Nutrition and Wellness team will be writing articles about various topics concerning health, nutrition and the efforts of the Atlanta Community Food Bank.

For many years, health experts stressed the importance of limiting dietary fat to improve health. However, fat is an incredibly important part of a high quality diet. Dietary fats play a role in providing energy, supporting cell growth, maintaining proper body temperature, cushioning vital organs, and facilitating the absorption and utilization of certain fat-soluble vitamins. This macronutrient provides 9 calories per gram, almost twice as much as protein and carbohydrates. Fortunately, the recent research and message has changed; instead of limiting fats in general, we should be focusing our attention on what types of fat we eat. Unhealthy and healthy fats have different effects on cholesterol levels and therefore heart health.

Unhealthy fats are also known as saturated and trans fats. Saturated fats tend to take a solid form in room temperature. Examples include high-fat meats, full fat dairy products (butter, cheese, ice cream, milk), palm oil, and lard. Trans fat is formed through an industrial process which creates a more shelf stable and savory tasting product. They are typically found in shortening, commercial baked goods, stick margarine, fried foods, candy bars, and select snack items such as microwave popcorn. To determine if there is trans fat in a product, read the label’s ingredients list; if the label has “partially hydrogenated oil” listed, it contains trans fat. Eating large amounts of saturated and trans fats over time can raise LDL (unhealthy cholesterol) levels and increase risk of heart attack, heart failure, and other forms of heart disease.

Unsaturated fats have quite the opposite effect on our health. They decrease LDL levels and some even raise HDL levels (good cholesterol). Unsaturated fats are found in nuts, seeds, legumes, avocados, olives, fish, canola/olive oil, and other cooking oils. These fats tend to be liquid at room temperature. Replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats can lower your risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic illness associated with poor nutrition.

Unfortunately, foods containing healthy fats tend to be more expensive.  When grocery shopping, check for deals on olive and canola oils, nuts, and other unsaturated fats; buy in bulk when possible. Fish bought in bulk can remain in the freezer safely for up to six months. If fresh fish is unavailable, canned fish such as tuna and salmon packed in water provide a shelf-stable, inexpensive, and healthy alternative.

Those without constant access to affordable nutritious food are disproportionately affected by chronic disease, including heart disease – the leading cause of death in the US and Georgia. If you donate food to your local food bank or charitable organization, give food high in unsaturated fats such as unsalted nuts, natural peanut butter, nut butters, beans, canned fish, and canola/olive oil (For more ideas, refer to our most needed items list). Increasing access to and consumption of healthy fats and other nutritious food while decreasing the availability of foods high in refined sugar, sodium, and saturated/trans fats will ultimately lessen the impact of chronic illness on our communities and health care systems. For an easy, affordable, nutritious recipe utilizing healthy fats, check out this apple cranberry salad.

Rachel Taft, RDN, LD
Nutrition Coordinator