Every five years, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U. S. Department of Agriculture release updated recommendations on how Americans should eat to stay healthy. That’s because, through research, we are constantly learning more about not just the foods we eat, but how our bodies use them.
For example, we’ve been told for decades that fat is bad for us. That’s because some types of fat, namely saturated and trans fats, cause blood cholesterol to increase, which can build up in our arteries, causing blockages in our blood flow that can lead to heart attacks and strokes. This cholesterol is also found in food, and guidelines recommended limiting the amount of dietary cholesterol that we eat each day. But we’ve recently determined that the cholesterol we get from foods like eggs doesn’t increase blood cholesterol as much as saturated and trans fats. And even more recently, we’ve learned that some fats actually help reduce cholesterol.
The 2015 to 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans reflect the latest information on how to eat to stay healthy and avoid chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease. The new report emphasizes reducing added sugar, eating more vegetables and fruits, and concentrating on nutritionally dense foods and lean protein sources. Among the biggest changes: There is now no upper limit on total fat intake and no set recommendation for dietary cholesterol intake.
“Previous guidelines demonized fat and ignored sugar,” says Kristine S. Arthur, M.D., an internist with Memorial Care Medical Group in Fountain Valley, California. “But it’s really been sugar sneaking into people’s diets in processed foods that has caused so many health problems. I’m glad they’ve made these changes.”
In 2010’s guidelines, total fat intake was capped at 20 to 35 percent of calories for adults 19 years old and above, 25 to 35 percent for children between 4 and 18, and 30 to 40 percent for children 3 and under. In the new guidelines, there is no cap on total fat. Instead, the recommendations focus on saturated and trans fats — limiting saturated fats to 10 percent of calories or less and minimizing trans fat intake as much as possible — and draws attention to added sugars. The change was first released in a February 2015 report from Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which referenced evidence that lowering your total fat intake doesn’t affect your risk for cardiovascular disease.
Erin Palinksi-Wade, R.D., CDE, of Mommyhoodbytes, concurs. “The reason removing the cap on fats is exciting is that people can now benefit from healthy, plant-based fats,” she says.
“I see a lot of diabetes patients who are trying to lose weight, but they are completely fat-phobic, so they eat snacks like pretzels, which are low in nutrition and have a lot of carbs. Now they can benefit from a handful of almonds, which provide fats that raise good cholesterol.”
The recommendations also suggest shifting from fat-free products, like salad dressings, to versions that contain flavorful — and healthy — fat, like olive oil.
There’s a good reason why fat phobia exists: For many years, any dietary fat — whether from a walnut or a lard-soaked potato chip — was thought to add pounds and clog arteries. But more recent research has shown that some fats are better (even much better) than others. Let’s break it down:
- Trans fats are an industrially produced fat that is added to commercially prepared foods, like dried biscuit and pancake mixes. They increase your levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad” cholesterol), lower high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good” cholesterol), add weight, and should generally be avoided.
- Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats help raise your levels of HDL and lower LDL. You can find them in olives and olive oil, fatty fish like salmon, and in seeds and nuts.
- Saturated fat raises your bad cholesterol levels. It is found in meat, most prominently processed red meat, as well as in high-fat dairy products. Saturated fats, such as butter, palm oil, and lard, are generally solid at room temperature, while unsaturated fats are liquid, such as olive or walnut oil (one exception is coconut oil, which is saturated but can be either liquid or solid depending on the room temperature).
‘Mixed Foods’ Are the New Culprit
The new recommendations suggest limiting saturated fat to less than 10 percent of your daily calories, but most of us consume more than that. One of the biggest sources of saturated fat in the American diet is a category called “mixed foods.” These include pizza, burgers, stews, burritos — basically any prepared food that contains more than one ingredient. According to the new report, 35 percent of the saturated fat in our diets comes from mixed foods, and they are often foods someone else prepares. So how can we control what’s in them?
“First of all, nobody goes from loving a hamburger with everything on it to loving a skinless chicken breast,” says Jessica Swift, R.D., founder of Washington, D.C. catering service Chef Jess. “The new recommendations have some good ideas about realistically shifting eating habits,” she says.
Tips to Help Limit Your Saturated Fat Intake
“Try to eat out at places that offer healthier alternatives. Instead of a hamburger with everything on it, see if they have a black bean burger with everything on it. If you’re ordering pizza, can you get whole-wheat crust and ask for half of the cheese? At least that’s more nutritionally dense and contains some fiber to help combat cholesterol absorption.”
Other tips on limiting saturated fats:
Milk: Switch from whole milk to low-fat or skim.
Cheese: Low-fat and part-skim cheeses are a great source of flavor without all the fat. Try dry cheeses like Parmesan and dry Monterrey Jack and use them as condiments.
Yogurt: Instead of presweetened low-fat yogurt, which is often loaded with added sugar, you can sweeten plain yogurt with fruit. Or you could just go Greek. “Yes, Greek yogurt contains fat,” says Swift. “But it also has more protein than other yogurt, so it’s more nutritionally dense.”
Fish: Enjoy fish, up to 15 ounces a week…just don’t fry it. Breading and frying adds empty carbohydrates and could include trans fats.
Chicken: Again, no frying! Opt for skinless, white meat chicken. It’s delicious grilled, baked, or sautéed in a healthy oil.
Beef and pork: Trim fat from steak and pork chops. When you’re shopping, Swift advocates reading labels for fat content. “Shift to a ground beef that has at least 90 percent or more lean meat, instead of a ground chuck, which could be as much as 30 percent fat.”
Eggs: Enjoy your eggs, and stop worrying about cholesterol. Just make sure to cook them in heart-healthy oil, like olive oil, instead of butter or margarine. “People who have avoided eggs can now reap their benefits, like omega-3 fatty acids, if they are from chickens fed omega-3 fats,” points out Palinski-Wade.
Why would you ever eat something that includes “fat” in the ingredients list? Because it’s essential to good health. Your body needs it to absorb certain nutrients and vitamins, produce hormones, keep your body warm, maintain healthy cholesterol levels, and reduce your risk of heart disease. That’s why it’s important to focus more on the type of fat you’re eating, and focus less on the overall quantity of fat you’re getting.