Pursuing A Fat-free Diet Is A Bad Idea

Eating Well

April 22, 1997|By Colleen Pierre | Colleen Pierre,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

I continue to encounter people who think they should eat no fat. They believe, mistakenly, that every gram of fat goes straight from lips to hips. This is just not so. As long as total calories from food match the day's calorie expenditure, even fat gets burned for activity. None gets stored as body fat.

This no-fat attitude worries me, because the avalanche of fat-free foods makes their goal nearly achievable.

Including a little dietary fat is more than just a matter of taste. Your body needs a little fat so it can absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, critical for night vision, healthy skin, bone growth, wound healing and blood clotting.

Your body also needs a variety of fatty acids for good health. It can make all but two of them, linoleic and linolenic acids. Those two must come from the fat in food.

Without that little bit of fat, you may experience skin damage, as well as subtle changes in vision and brain function. Those polyunsaturated fatty acids also play a part in managing blood clotting, blood pressure, cholesterol levels and the work of the immune system in fighting illness, infection and injury. They're also critical in protecting against heart disease and cancer.

So a little bit of fat is good. But it doesn't take much.

For the vast majority of people, getting enough fat is nothing to worry about. Most people easily get all the linoleic acid they need from even a very low-fat diet. And anyone eating small amounts of vegetable oils and a little fish can feel confident that their needs are being met.

In fact, most people in the United States are still eating too much fat. If you're one of them, this message is not for you.

But if you're trying to go totally fat free, congratulate yourself on moving in the right direction, then think "moderation." How low can you go?

The bottom line on fat minimums is not yet clear.

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines and the Food Guide Pyramid suggest a maximum of 30 percent of calories from fat (63 to 73 grams per day for women, 77 to 93 grams per day for men). This may have been a compromise level, agreed upon in the hope that Americans eating 40 percent of calories from fat would find 30 percent a reachable goal. While a big improvement, this still might not be ideal.

Many weight-control specialists suggest 20 percent of calories from fat may improve weight loss and may be a healthier level generally (42 to 49 grams per day for women, 51 to 62 grams per day for men).

The heart disease reversal program of Dr. Dean Ornish recommends 10 percent of calories come from fat. This equals the heart-healthiest Oriental diets (21 to 24 grams daily for women and 25 to 31 grams daily for men). Ornish has demonstrated reversal of artery clogging in high-risk patients.

The waters are muddied by people from the Mediterranean area who eat 37 percent of their calories from fat but have very low rates of heart disease. There, the type of fat -- mostly monounsaturated from olive oil, rather than the saturated fat eaten by Americans -- seems to be more important that the amount.

Several years ago, noted obesity researcher Dr. George Blackburn told me that at least 10 grams of fat daily are required for your gallbladder to function. Since then I have worked with numerous women choosing so many fat-free foods that they weren't getting half that amount. And that's what worries me.

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant to the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorst & Associates in Baltimore.

Pub Date: 4/22/97

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