Fats in our food — it easy to get lost. Fats, oils, lard, good fats, bad fats, LDL, HDL, cholesterol, adipose, triglycerides, lipids…..The list goes on & on for words that mean fats in foods. It can be
confusing when looking at labels and trying to interpret advice from your healthcare provider about blood work results. Here’s a simple explanation of the role fats play in our bodies, the importance of some fats in our diet, the different types of fats you need to know about, and what to look for on a food label when trying to make a healthy choice.
The Role of Fat Fat does have multiple roles in the human body:
- It protects our organs and lines the nerves,
- helps provide some “cushion” to bony areas (like the buttocks and fingertips),
- fat provides a source of energy,
- essential fatty acids are required nutrients for good health,
- some of the vitamins (A, D, E, and K) needed by our bodies must have fat to be absorbed,
- and fat helps preserve body heat.
- It also has negative effects on the body when not in the proper balance. Diets with an improper balance of fats and cholesterol can cause heart disease, liver disease, and obesity. Obesity can lead to other problems such as diabetes, joint pain, metabolic syndrome, sleep disturbance, low self esteem, depression, high blood pressure, and worsening asthma symptoms. Making healthy changes in childhood can help prevent illness and premature death for your child, and can help your child learn valuable lifetime habits.
Type of Fats Some examples of types of fats in foods include:
- Unsaturated fats — there are two kinds you’ll see listed on food labels: monounsaturated fats (MUFAS) and Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAS). Monounsaturated fats are healthy fats in olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil, avocado, poultry, nuts and seeds. Polyunsaturated fats are found in vegetable oils like safflower, corn, sunflower, soy, and cottonseed. It’s also in peanut oil, nuts and seeds.
There’s a lot of information about Omega 3 Fatty Acids lately – they fall into this category of fats. Good choices include walnuts, almonds, ground flaxseed, and fish like salmon, mackerel, and herring. So, unsaturated fats are the “better choice” in the fats selection – but that doesn’t mean you and your child eat as much as you want – you still have to monitor and limit these fats too.
- Limit the Saturated fats (butter, lard, vegetable shortening, coconut, palm kernel oil, coconut oil, egg yolk, fatty meats, dairy products, hot dogs, bacon, ribs, pizza, many prepared dinners, fast food type meals, and cheese). Diets higher in saturated fats are linked to heart disease and obesity. When comparing food labels for the same type of product, choose the one with the least amount of saturated fats and containing NO Trans Fats.
- You should absolutely avoid Trans Fats (stick margarine, shortening, commercially fried foods like French fries or doughnuts, and foods with partially hydrogenated oils like cookies, cakes, chips, crackers, pie crusts. It’s also in meat & dairy products).
- Cholesterol is actually produced in our bodies. We do not need any amount of cholesterol in our diets to survive because our body can produce what we need. However, cholesterol is found in some of the foods we eat (eggs, meats, dairy products, lard, and butter). So this is another substance, like saturated and trans fats, that should be extremely limited in our diets because it essentially isn’t needed in the food we take in.
Some Helpful Hints When Cooking & Shopping
- Be sure to read and compare food labels, choosing the food with less cholesterol, less saturated fat, and avoid products listing “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” listed as one of the first few ingredients.
- Instead of potato chips and crackers, offer your child a handful of nuts like almonds, walnuts, peanuts, or pistachios. Or try pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds to snack on.
- Use olive oil to sauté foods and as the oil in salad dressings.
- Use canola oil to bake and prepare foods.
- To help make vegetables and salads more appealing, sprinkle sunflower seeds or slivers of almonds on top.
- Instead of cheese on a sandwich or sour cream dips, try avocado slices or spreads.
- Have meatless days. Serve vegetable and bean main courses a few days a week. Explore different recipes. You’ll see how much money you can save too by limiting meats as your protein source. Click here to see some sample recipes you could try.
Inside Our Bodies
The fats from our foods affect the types of fats inside our body. If you or your child has had a “lipid panel” blood test performed then you probably got information about the total cholesterol, high density lipoproteins or HDL, the low density lipoproteins or LDL, and triglyceride results. Basically there’s the good, the bad, and the ugly in this situation.
The “Good Cholesterol” is the HDL (high density lipoproteins). For most people we want that number to be over 60. Simply put, if your child’s HDL is less than 60, then your child doesn’t have the “oil” in the bloodstream to keep the other unhealthy fats from clogging up the “pipes” in the bloodstream. So, the waxy cholesterol and saturated fats in the diet can clog up your child’s arteries and may eventually keep oxygen from your child’s heart– causing a heart attack. To increase HDL you’ll want to follow the tips above, keep your child fit with daily physical activity, and your child’s doctor may advise giving your child an omega 3 fatty acid supplement.
The “Bad Cholesterol” is the LDL (low density lipoproteins). Typically keeping this less than 110 is the goal for kids. A diet high in saturated fats and trans fats will make this number increase and clogs the bloodstream. Again, follow the advice above when cooking and shopping. Paying attention to what you put in your bodies will help keep your family healthier.
Total cholesterol is the total amount of all types of cholesterol measured. For kids, a healthy level is 170mg or less. Adults usually want 200 or less. Dietary cholesterol is found in meats, egg yolk, dairy products, and oils.
Triglycerides are another type of fat. A healthy level is 150mg or less. High levels put your child at risk for heart disease. Triglycerides in the blood come from the fats in foods we eat or are made in the body from the carbohydrates that we eat.
In summary, some types of fats in your child’s foods are beneficial in small amounts and some types of fats are very harmful. If you do your best to offer fresh fruits and vegetables with very little if any sauces and condiments on your child’s foods and monitor dairy, processed breads, and meats that you offer your child, you’ll be making a huge difference in your child’s health and future well-being.
Preparing meals from scratch, cooking at home, limiting pre-packaged foods and restaurant meals is the best way a parent can affect their child’s nutritional intake. For busy families, this can seem like a daunting task. Check out our handy family meal plans for busy parents who have a “hankering” for home-cooked family meals. These plans are based on 2-4 hrs of “meal prep time” for the whole week. You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you’re doing your best in providing your family with well-balanced, healthy meals and you’ll still be able to keep up with your busy schedules.