Much of the saturated fat in the foods that make up the typical American diet comes from animal products. Dairy products made from whole milk, butter, cheese, and ice cream add hefty doses of saturated fat to the diet. The marbling and visible fat in meat are also high in saturated fat. Most of the saturated fat in poultry is found in the skin.
While vegetable fats are generally low in saturated fats, there are a few exceptions. Coconut oil and palm kernel oil are the highest in saturated fat of the vegetable oils; cocoa butter and palm oil also contain saturated fat. The fat content of palm kernel oil is not the same as palm oil; palm kernel oil is over 80 percent saturated fat, whereas palm oil is about half saturated fat and half unsaturated fat.
Hydrogenated oils undergo a process that adds hydrogen atoms to unsaturated fats, which makes them more saturated and solid. Food processors hydrogenate oils to improve shelf life and to give foods desirable taste and texture. Partially hydrogenated oils contain trans fat. Foods that contain hydrogenated oils or trans fat include stick margarine, vegetable shortening, crackers, cookies, and fried fast food, such as French fries.
In general, soft margarines (in tub, liquid, or spray form) and light margarines have less trans fat than hard margarines. Some margarines are now trans-fat free. Check the product label to see if it contains hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils and if it is free of trans fat.
When you do choose foods that contain fat, you should select those that contain mostly monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat. Oils rich in monounsaturated fat include olive oil and canola oil. Sources of polyunsaturated fat include cooking oils made from cottonseed, corn, safflower, sesame, soybean, and sunflower, as well as nuts and seeds. Fish also contain the polyunsaturated fats known as omega-3 fatty acids.
If you need to lose weight, cutting down on fat can help you decrease your calories and lower your blood-cholesterol level (especially if you lose that weight by eating less saturated fat and trans fat). To lower high blood cholesterol, it's also wise to limit cholesterol in your diet. However, dietary cholesterol does not have as great an impact on blood cholesterol as saturated fat or trans fat. The Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes program recommends that people with high blood cholesterol should limit dietary cholesterol to less than 200 mg each day. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 300 mg a day for the general public.
Cholesterol is found exclusively in animal products, including dairy products, meat, eggs, poultry, fish, and shellfish. Foods from plant sources contain no cholesterol (unless, of course, they are served with animal products like cream sauces or cheese). Since many of the foods that are high in saturated fat also contain cholesterol, the cholesterol in your diet should decrease as you reduce the amount of saturated fat that you eat. A common source of cholesterol in the American diet is egg yolks (a single egg yolk contains about 213 mg of cholesterol), so if your blood cholesterol is elevated, you may want to limit eggs to three or four a week, or use egg substitutes which do not contain cholesterol.
However, population studies suggest that eating up to an egg a day does not increase the risk of heart disease in healthy people, nor is eating eggs linked to increased blood cholesterol levels in these individuals. It's even been suggested that the nutrients in eggs -- including folate, vitamins B12 and E, unsaturated fat, and antioxidants -- may provide heart-healthy benefits that counterbalance the potential adverse effects of cholesterol in eggs. Nevertheless, since people vary widely in their response to dietary cholesterol, if you have elevated blood cholesterol, it's wise to limit high-cholesterol foods.
Armed with this information about fat and calories, you can stick to your diet plan. Learn more about staying the course on the next page.
For more information about losing weight, see:
- How Cholesterol Works: Cholesterol is essential to the body. Find out why we need it and how much is too much.
- The Facts on Fat: Fat is an essential nutrient, but some forms are more harmful than others. Learn about saturated fat, trans fat and other types of fat.