More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Why "Fat-Free" Isn't Trouble-Free
May 19, 2006

Read labels to make sure you're eating healthy.

The skinny on fat is simple enough: Americans eat too much of it, and as a result, wear too much of it.

Today we're eating fewer fatty meats, whole dairy products and other foods rich in saturated fats ? the kind that most significantly raise cholesterol, clog arteries and contribute to increased rates of the heart disease that claims one American every 33 seconds. In fact, Americans are consuming a noticeable 18 percent fewer calories from fat than we did 20 years ago. But as a nation, we're actually getting fatter and eating more overall calories than ever before.

One reason might be our reliance on "low-fat" and "fat-free" labels. Today, nine in 10 Americans regularly buy lower-fat versions of food products, which sometimes contain more calories (albeit fewer fat calories) than the original versions.

Problem 1: Less fat can mean more calories.
Some "no-fat" or "low-fat" products contain as many calories as their original versions per serving; a handful can even have a few calories more. Many people consume larger quantities of low-fat foods, believing that they are "healthier." But a 10 or 15 calorie difference per cookie can tip the scales (and not in your favor) if you overindulge. So it's important to read the entire food label, not just the information on fat.

Problem 2: Oils that foil your cholesterol-lowering attempts.
More calories aren't the only concern in low-fat foods. Because of the ingredients in these products, they can raise blood cholesterol levels as much as fattier versions and may have an even more detrimental effect on blood lipids in some people. That's because these lower-fat versions may contain oils that undergo a chemical process known as "hydrogenation," in which a liquid vegetable oil that's naturally high in unsaturated fatty acids (and therefore heart-healthier) is transformed to a more solid and saturated form.

Cheaper To Use
Food manufacturers do that for several reasons. Adding hydrogen to these oils gives foods more texture and a more "spreadable" consistency. The products also have a longer shelf life, and these oils are cheaper to use than more expensive and artery-clogging spreads such as butter and lard.

But this hydrogenation changes oil in two ways: Besides making oils more saturated, it creates trans fatty acids ? molecules that get twisted and out of shape during heating. These trans fats can raise the levels of low-density lipoproteins (LDLs), the so-called "bad" cholesterol, sometimes as much as saturated fats do in some people. Meanwhile, trans fatty acids do not increase levels of high-density lipoproteins (HDLs), the "good" cholesterol that is responsive to monounsaturated fatty acids found in olive and canola oils. And some studies suggest that the chemical change induced in fatty acids by hydrogenation also may affect cell function, thereby increasing the risk of cancer.

Read The Label
Besides checking for calorie count, look at the list of ingredients on snack foods and other baked goods. The words "may contain hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils" (usually vegetable shortenings or oils such as corn or safflower) indicate the product is hydrogenated. If the nutrition label lists hydrogenated oils among the first three ingredients, you're better off with a substitute, but not one containing a saturated fat such as palm kernel or coconut oil.

What Is Cholesterol?
LDL cholesterol, the so-called "bad" cholesterol, is the blood's major cholesterol carrier. Excess levels are associated with an increased risk of heart disease because LDLs can gradually accumulate along the walls of arteries and harden much like a clog in a pipe ? narrowing the flow of blood to the heart and brain. Therefore, a high LDL reading is considered a health risk. A precursor, VLDL (very low-density lipoproteins), is another lipoprotein that transports triglycerides, another type of fat that is produced in the liver.
HDL cholesterol, the so-called "good" cholesterol, is believed to help carry away cholesterol from the arteries and back into the liver (where it's manufactured for cell and hormone development), reducing risk of coronary artery disease. Up to one-third of the cholesterol in your blood is carried by HDLs. A high HDL reading is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease.
Blood or serum cholesterol is the three-digit number often used to describe overall cholesterol levels. Actually, it's a composite number consisting of the levels of LDL, HDL and VLDL cholesterol.
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