Weight and Obesity
Health guide / Weight and Obesity / Healthy Eating / Guidelines for specific food types

Evolving Your Diet Away from Fats

Reducing the fat in your diet begins with reading nutritional labels. Many foods today are labeled to show, among other things, what percentage of calories in each serving comes from fat.

As a general rule, choose foods that contain no more than 20% fat. But beware: Sometimes the serving size represents less than what you're likely to eat, meaning that the number of fat calories you'll actually consume is greater.

And don't be fooled by the Daily Value listing. The DV tells you how much of a day's worth of fat, cholesterol, sodium, and so on the food provides, based on a hypothetical 2,000-calorie-a-day diet. DV ratings are in bold print on the new nutrition labels, but this percentage is not the same as the percentage of fat the food contains. A snack food might have a fat DV of 20% or less, and yet get most of its calories from fat.

Also beware of foods that claim to be "96% fat-free." Labels proclaiming an item to be light or reduced-fat, or fat-free to some enormous percentage, are among the biggest abominations in the supermarket. These labels contain a tiny germ of truth. An item that claims to be 96% fat-free is — by weight. But weight doesn't matter. What matters is its percentage of calories from fat. Whole milk contains only 4% fat by weight, so it's 96% fat-free. But a whopping 50% of its calories come from fat. Low-fat milk (2%) derives 38% of its calories from fat.

Watch out for things like light mayonnaise. Regular mayo derives about 95% of its calories from fat. Light mayonnaise is lower, but it's still more than 75% fat.

Guidelines for specific food types

You don't always need a label to choose foods wisely. Here are some groups of foods, and their relations to fat.
Fruits, vegetables, and beans They're low in fat and high in carbohydrates, just the ticket for a healthy diet. But don't destroy them by smothering them in high-fat butter, margarine, cream, or cheese.
Pastas and grains. This food group is low in fat and high in carbohydrates. Eat more of them, as long as you're careful about what you add.
Breads. These are generally fine, but beware of crackers, muffins, biscuits, croissants, and other bread treats, which are high in fat. In addition, be careful about spreads. Low-fat choices include jellies, jams, preserves, mashed bananas, bean dip, and nonfat yogurt, cream cheese, and cottage cheese. Butter, margarine, peanut butter, and cheeses are high in fat.
Nuts and seeds. Nuts and seeds are high in fat. If you eat them by the handful, you can consume a great deal of fat. Use nuts and seeds sparingly to top fruits, vegetables, beans, pastas, or grains. Or substitute Grape Nuts cereal (completely fat-free) or toasted bread crumbs, oats, or cornmeal.
Eggs. Use commercial egg substitutes in cooking and baking. For scrambled eggs or omelets, mix one real egg into a bowl containing mashed tofu or two or three eggs' worth of substitute.
Red meats. Of all the red meats, only venison gets less than 20% of its calories from fat. Beef, veal, pork, lamb, duck, sausages, and luncheon meats are all high in fat. But you don't have to eliminate them from your diet, just change how you use them. Instead of building your meals around them, choose recipes that use small amounts of meat to flavor dishes based on vegetables, beans, or grains, the way Asian cuisines do. If you love BLTs, you can still have them, but don't stack four strips of bacon atop one slice each of lettuce and tomato. Instead, pile on the L and T, and crumble one strip of B over them.

If you love burgers, select lean cuts — the leanest is fat-trimmed top round. Ask the butcher to grind it for you. Then stretch your burgers by adding oatmeal and grated carrots. When you pan-fry ground beef for spaghetti sauce, brown it first, then place it in a colander and rinse it thoroughly with hot water. This removes a great deal of the fat.
Chicken. Skinless white-meat chicken breasts are low in fat, and can be used in a virtually limitless number of low-fat recipes. But watch out: Chicken skin is high in fat. If you eat it, you lose chicken's benefits. Strip the skin before you cook chicken. The meat can absorb a great deal of fat from the skin during cooking.

Dark meat (thighs and drumsticks) is also high in fat. You can still eat dark meat; just use it sparingly, in recipes whose main ingredients are vegetables, beans, or grains. Also beware of chicken hot dogs. They're often as high in fat as their pork or beef counterparts — chicken hot dogs are mostly skin and dark meat. Finally, be careful how you cook and serve your skinless chicken breasts. When fried or batter-dipped, they're full of fat. Ditto for butter- or cream-based sauces.
Turkey. It's not just for Thanksgiving anymore. Ounce for ounce, a skinless white-meat turkey breast is even lower in fat than a chicken breast. These days, supermarkets sell them whole, sliced, or in cutlets. If you pound turkey cutlets and cook them like veal, it's hard to tell the difference. But be careful: turkey has the same caveats as chicken. Trim the skin and cook it skinless. And steer clear of dark-meat turkey, turkey franks, ground turkey, frying, and high-fat sauces.
Fish and seafood. Most fish and seafood are low in fat, including cod, flounder, lobster, scallops, shrimp, snapper, and sole. But several fish are fairly high in fat: herring, mackerel, and salmon. To keep your fish low in fat, bake, broil, poach, or grill it, or pan-fry it in wine. Don't fry it in butter or margarine or cover it with butter- or cream-based sauces. If you enjoy high-fat fish, use small portions, and combine them with vegetables, beans, and grains. Canned tuna comes packed in either water or high-fat oil; choose water.
Butter, margarine, and oils. They're all 100% fat. Butter is the most harmful because it's the highest in saturated fat, which raises cholesterol and contributes to heart disease. But margarine contains trans-fatty acids, which also increase risk of heart disease. Olive oil, a monounsaturated fat, does not increase risk of heart disease or — according to some studies — the risk of breast or colon cancer. But olive oil is still 100% fat. Use it sparingly.

One good way is to use less than your recipes call for. If a recipe suggests two tablespoons of olive oil, try one or even less. Or substitute vegetable broth or sherry. Or try an oil spray. Most people who cook with sprays, available at supermarkets, use less oil than they would if they poured liquid oil into their pans. Another easy way to trim fat is to use fat-free dressings on salads. Pritikin and other brands are available at most supermarkets. Or try vinegar or lemon juice with just a splash of oil.
"Low-fat" prepared foods. The dishes sold by some weight-control businesses and similar programs claim to be low in fat. They are lower than the typical American diet, but most still derive more than 20% of their calories from fat. They are not low enough in fat to significantly reduce risk of the fat-related health conditions. They also shrink portion sizes to reduce the calorie count, so they may leave you unsatisfied and temped to binge on high-fat items.
Nonfat versions of foods. Supermarket shelves are full of all sorts of seemingly sinful, yet fat-free foods. Do you love cream cheese? Now there's fat-free cream cheese made from skim milk. Does the word "dessert" make you salivate for ice cream? Try nonfat frozen yogurt, or sorbet made entirely from frozen pureed fruit. Pretzels, chips, cookies, breakfast cereals, cheeses, sour cream — they all come in nonfat versions. Supermarkets now carry literally hundreds of nonfat items. The next time you go shopping, look for these nonfat food alternatives. But be sure to read the food label and make sure the item is truly nonfat.
Finally, a few more tips to keep in mind every day — and that will help keep your craving for fats to a minimum:
Eat breakfast. For most people it's easier to banish the fat from breakfast than from any other meal. Try toast with jam, apple butter, or nonfat cream cheese; a nonfat cereal or oatmeal with skim milk; nonfat yogurt and fresh fruit; or a fruit salad with nonfat cottage cheese.

"A good breakfast provides energy," Ornish explains, "and reduces midmorning food cravings that send people scurrying for danishes and doughnuts."
Eat mindfully. While eating, don't do anything else. Don't read, work, do household chores, or watch TV.

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