Banish Bad Fat

Learn about fats and get lean the right way

We’ve come a long way nutritionally from the days when all fat was bad. Today researchers and doctors recognize that there’s no reason to tar every fat with the same brush. Instead, they’ve now identified the “good” fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) and the “bad” fats (saturated and trans fats).

The good news is that we can now eat certain fats and still be perfectly healthy. And let’s be honest — fats often taste rich and wonderful. The downside? To make smart choices, you have to be conscious now of four types of fats. But there’s an easy way to figure this out. Basically, if a fat is a solid when at room temperature, chances are it’s a bad fat. That would include most animal fats, butter, shortening, and some nut oils. Good fats are usually in fish and plant oils. Remember that, and you are well on your way to choosing the right fats.

Of course, even good fats have their limits. All fats provide your body with 9 calories per gram, more than twice as much as proteins or carbohydrates. And in the end, weight gain and weight loss are about calories. For good health and weight, keep your total fat intake to 30 percent of calories or less, and keep saturated fat intake to less than 10 percent of calories in a day or less. Trans fats? Try to keep them to zero. Here is a slew of ways to follow all of these important health rules:

1. We’ll start with the easiest: Choose low-fat products over regular. Do not accept the argument that low-fat versions don’t taste as good. It’s not true! Low-fat versions may not taste the way you or your family is used to, but after a week or two of using the new version, you’ll stop noticing the subtle decline in richness. Here are the places to start:

  • Milk: You need not jump all the way to no-fat; 1% milk is perfectly healthy, but still has that rich milk flavor. Use 2% as a stepping-stone from whole milk, but don’t stop there — 35 percent of the calories still come from fat in 2% milk.
  • Ice cream: Most “light” versions taste as rich and creamy as the full-fat versions. We particularly like the Breyer’s line of light ice creams.
  • Yogurt: Given that most people eat their yogurt flavored, it is hard to notice the difference between regular and low- or no-fat versions.
  • Ground beef: Don’t think that buying fatty ground beef and pouring off the grease makes it fine. Much of the fat is bound in with the meat. Good quality, 90-percent-or-more ground sirloin is leaner and healthier for you.
  • Cheese: Particularly mozzarella cheese for pizza. Low-fat versions still have all the taste and texture you so desire.

2. Keep your spreads soft. That means choosing soft margarines, and leaving your butter out of the refrigerator. The softer the spread, the less you’ll use on your toast or bagel, thus the fewer saturated fats you’ll get. Also, remember this: The softer the margarine is at room temperature, the lower the amount of trans fats it contains.

3. Choose sat-fat-free spreads. It’s amazing what manufacturers can come up with when they put their minds to it. Today you can find butter-like spreads in your refrigerated sections that are low or even free of all saturated and trans fats, and that actually taste good. Good brands to try include Benecol (which will also help lower your cholesterol when used regularly), Canoleo, Earth Balance Natural Buttery Spread, and Blue Bonnet. All except Blue Bonnet are trans-fat-free; Blue Bonnet has 0.5 mg trans fat per serving.

4. Buy a pretty bottle, fill it with olive oil, then top it with a liquor stop. You know, the kind you use to pour out shots of liquor. Now keep the bottle on your counter in plain view and use it for everything short of frying (olive oil burns at high temperatures). Olive oil is the best oil to use because it contains high amounts of monounsaturated fats and low amounts of saturated fats (all oils contain a mixture of the three: mono, poly, and saturated; the key is the ratio), isn’t too strongly flavored, and is affordable. Buy the deepest green, extra virgin olive oil you can find — the darker the color, the greater the amount of phytonutrients, potent little plant-based cancer fighters.

5. If you can’t go without your butter, mix it with olive oil. Let a stick of butter soften at room temperature, suggests Barbara Morris, R.Ph., a pharmacist, speaker, and anti-aging expert and author. Beat the butter smooth, then slowly beat in 1/4 or 1/2 cup olive oil. You’ve just significantly cut the amount of saturated fat while adding loads of healthy monounsaturated fat.

6. Eat the right meats. Sure, meat is one of the primary forms of saturated fat. But meat — whether red or white — is also an excellent source of protein and trace minerals like zinc and iron. The key is choosing the right meats. For instance, of the 19 cuts of beef that meet the USDA’s labeling guidelines for lean, 12 have only 1 more gram of saturated fat on average than a comparable 3-ounce cooked serving of skinless chicken. The best choices include top sirloin beef, with 2.4 grams saturated fat, and chuck pot roast, with 3 grams saturated fat.

7. Don’t be taken in by the “other white meat” slogan. Put simply, lean chicken is much less fatty than lean pork. A 3-ounce serving of broiled chicken breast (no skin) provides 140 calories, 27 from fat, and only one-third of that fat is saturated. The same serving of roasted lean pork loin delivers 275 calories, 189 of them from fat, half of which is saturated. To top it off, the chicken has 6 more grams of protein than the pork.

8. Once a week, eat an exotic meat in place of beef or pork. We’re talking emu, bison (buffalo), venison, wild boar, or ostrich. All have less than 1 gram of saturated fat per 3-ounce serving, are super rich with protein, and taste extremely good.

9. Rinse ground meat under hot water after cooking. This rinses away a good deal of the fat.

10. Find ways to cook your steak with other ingredients. The goal: Stop putting whole slabs of steak in front of you. Instead, slice the raw beef and sauté with peppers and onions, fajita style. Or cook steak pieces in a wok with lots of vegetables (pepper steak, beef and broccoli). Or top a crunchy, robust salad with steak slices. Or make shish kebab with steak cubes and veggies. Why? You almost always eat less meat when you prepare it as part of a nicely integrated dish. Hold off on the whole steak for very special occasions.

11. Be wary, though, of recipes that allow starches and veggies to absorb fat. Many classic winter dishes have potatoes, carrots, turnips, and other vegetables roasting slowly with chicken, beef, lamb, or pork. Delicious, sure. But all those foods are soaking up a whole lot of fat that’s dripped off the meat. It’s a little more effort, but either find ways to cook the vegetables separately, or wait until you’ve skimmed the fat from the meat juices before adding in the vegetables.

12. Follow a simple rule: If you can plainly see fat on your food, remove it. Here’s what we mean:

  • If there is fat on the meat, trim it off.
  • If there is skin on the chicken, remove it.
  • If there is oil pooling on the top of the pizza, sop it up with a paper towel.
  • If there is dressing pooled at the bottom of your salad, pour it off.
  • If there’s a pool of juice under a cooked meat (and it’s not a sauce), drain it.
  • If there’s fat at the top of a bowl of stew or soup, skim it.

13. Cook your flavor into breads, pancakes, muffins, and other carb-based foods so you don’t need to add butter. For example, add herbs to breads; blueberries to pancakes; nuts and bananas to muffins. Grain-filled foods are often the ones that you most want to butter, but if you make them more flavorful, you get around the urge.

14. Put salsa on your baked potato, not butter or sour cream. You not only skip the fat, but add in a healthy, low-cal serving of vegetables.

15. Mist your fat. Use a nonfat spray like PAM to coat pans and foods. You can even make a butter-free grilled cheese sandwich by spraying both sides of the bread and the pan with PAM. You’ll get the same crunchy, delectable flavor without the fat. You can also buy a contraption called the Misto, which enables you to mist your olive oil, thus using far less than if you poured it.

16. Sauté foods in broth, wine, even juice. These are just a few of the alternatives to filling the bottom of your cookware with calorie-dense oils.

17. Buy the right whole grain crackers. We want you to eat whole grains, but when it comes to crackers, even these supposedly healthy nibbles are often packed with trans fats. Some good ones that either have little or no trans fats include: Ak-Mak 100% Whole Wheat Crackers, Finn Crisp, GG Scandinavian Bran Crispbread, Kavli Whole Grain Crispbread, Wasa, and Kashi TLC.

18. Watch out for trans fats in unexpected places. That would be peanut butter, graham crackers, energy bars, frozen pizza, cereal, and frozen waffles. Even foods you might think of as health foods — such as granola — often carry large amounts of trans fats.

19. Use nonfat evaporated milk in place of cream for cream-based soups and other recipes.

20. Put soups and stews in the refrigerator overnight. Voilà! The next morning you can just skim the congealed fat off the top.

21. Shred your cheese. You’ll use less on pasta dishes, sandwiches, etc., if it’s shredded than if it’s sliced.

22. Use peanut butter in place of butter. Yes, peanut butter is high in fat (21-27 grams per 3 tablespoons) but most of the fat is monounsaturated. Look for sugar- and salt-free peanut butter for an even healthier spread. Also try natural peanut butters, which won’t have any trans fats. Stir before eating, as they tend to separate.

23. Order pizza without the fat. Sausage and pepperoni are very high in fats. Whole-milk mozzarella cheese is also high in fat. And excessive olive oil adds too many calories from fat. The answer? As mentioned, mop up the excess grease on the top of the pizza, order vegetables on top, ask for low-fat cheese, and on occasion, order a cheeseless tomato pizza. The Harvard Women’s Health Watch newsletter notes that a vegetable pizza can have 25 percent fewer calories and about 50 percent less fat and saturated fat than a meat pizza.

24. Stick to mustard, steak sauce, ketchup, and other non-creamy condiments in place of mayonnaise and tartar sauce. Mayonnaise is particularly dense with fat. You should avoid it at all costs. That means making your coleslaw, pasta salads, potato salads, and tuna salads with healthier choices.

25. Puree a cooked potato and an onion to thicken soups instead of cream.

26. Use avocados in place of butter and cream. There’s a reason these green fruits are called butterfruit in Mexico — they mash up into the same creamy texture as butter. Try them in soups as a thickening agent, and in mashed potatoes to provide a creamier texture as well as an added taste treat. Interestingly, avocados and olives are the only two fruits high in fat — yet both are rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat.

27. Eat a high-fiber cereal for breakfast. So, you’re asking, what’s cereal got to do with your fat intake? Plenty. Fiber fills you up and seems to reduce your interest in fatty foods. Researchers from the University of Mississippi found that men who ate two daily servings of cereal, each containing 7 grams fiber, reduced their average total fat intake from 91 to 82 grams a day, and their saturated fat intake to less than 10 percent of calories.

28. Substitute soy for meat or cheese at least once a week. Soy cheese, soy burgers, and soy crumbles (like ground meat) are a great way to cut the saturated fat while retaining some semblance of the original food. Okay, soy products may not be gourmet, but you can certainly handle a switch once a week!

29. Try soy milk on your cereal. These days, you can even get flavored soy milks. Just make sure to look for brands with added calcium. You can also substitute soy milk in baking and other recipes.

30. Look for the keywords on labels. Although manufacturers aren’t required to begin listing the amount of trans fats in their products until 2006, you can still suss out the bad stuff with a bit of careful label reading. You’re looking for the words “partially hydrogenated” or “hydrogenated.” If you see that, step away from the food and nobody will get hurt!

31. Do the math yourself. Even before manufacturers begin listing trans fats on their labels, you can figure out the amount. Simply add the amount of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats to the saturated fat. Subtract the sum from the total fat listed on the label. The remainder is trans fat.

32. Take manufacturer labeling with a grain of, ahem, fat. By 2006, when the government’s mandated labeling of trans fats goes into effect, manufacturers will be able to tout their products as “trans-free.” Some already do. Take their claims with skepticism. Federal rules allow this claim as long as the product has less than 0.5 grams of the nasty fat. But if you eat several servings a day of foods with these tiny amounts of trans fats, you could be getting 5 or more grams a day!

33. Be fast-food savvy. The amount of fat in a fast-food restaurant meal can be stunning. The french fries, the burgers, the “special sauces” made from mayonnaise, the fried this-and-that, even the salads swimming in oily or creamy dressings may be your worst dietary enemy. Our recommendation: Go to the Web site of each of the fast-food chains you frequent, and take 15 minutes to look at the nutritional analyses of the foods you prefer. After the shock wears away, make a commitment to healthier choices — or much smaller portions.

34. Keep a jar of homemade salad dressing in the fridge. Bottled dressings are a veritable fount of trans fats.

35. Puree silken tofu. Works great as a substitute for mayonnaise in recipes, or to blend with frozen fruit and sweetener for a yogurt-like snack. Also try layering it with granola for a parfait.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest