Eating high-fat foods is a lethal habit, second only to smoking in terms of the number of lives it claims. According to one study, a high-fat diet is responsible for some 300,000 deaths each year.
Like smoking, a high-fat diet kills by directly contributing to a host of serious health problems. The strongest evidence links dietary fat to heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, cancer, and diabetes. And, of course, there’s obesity, which is a risk factor for many of these diseases.
Research has also identified a high-fat diet as a risk factor for chronic health problems such as hearing loss, osteoarthritis, and-in men-impotence.
“Most Americans who have chronic health problems would not have those problems if they ate a low-fat diet,” says Neal D. Barnard, M.D., president of the Washington, D.C.-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
Adding Carbs, Subtracting Fat
In recent years, Americans have trimmed a little fat from their diets. But total fat consumption is still at near-record levels. Not surprisingly, so is obesity.
For years, carbohydrates were vilified as fattening. As it turns out, carbs are actually your friends, your body’s main source of energy.
What’s more, carbohydrates supply fewer calories than fat-4 calories per gram versus 9 calories per gram. So you can actually eat more carbohydrates than fat for the same number of calories. “Fat calories really sneak up on you,” observes Ron Goor, Ph.D., coauthor (with his wife, Nancy) of the Eater’s Choice low-fat cookbooks. “A few handfuls of potato chips has the same number of calories as two medium-size baked potatoes topped with nonfat yogurt and steamed vegetables:”
“If you reduce your fat consumption from the typical 35 to 40 percent of calories to the 10 percent recommended in my program, you can eat one-third more food without increasing your total calorie intake,” adds Dean Ornish, M.D., president of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California, whose ultra low fat diet has been shown to reverse heart disease. “You’ll feel full and satisfied but still lose weight. And you’ll reduce your risk of fat-related diseases:”
No wonder the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest-a Washington, D.C.-based consumer nutrition organization-urge all Americans to reduce their dietary fat intakes. In a joint report,
these groups estimated that if every person cut his fat consumption by one-third (to approximately 20 percent of calories), the nation’s health-care bill would plummet by
$17 billion a year.
Guidelines for Healthful -Eating
To our credit, we Americans are consuming less meat, eggs, and whole milk these days. But in exchange, we’re chowing down on a lot more pizza, french fries, and other fast-food items loaded with hidden fat.
You can take steps to pare down your dietary fat intake and reap the many health benefits of low-fat eating. The process begins with reading nutrition labels. As a general rule, you’re much better off if you select foods that derive no more than 20 percent of calories from fat per serving.
But beware: The serving size may be smaller than what you actually eat, so your fat intake is higher than what’s listed on the label. And don’t be fooled by the percent Daily Value. This figure tells you how much of a day’s worth of fat a food provides. But because it’s based on a hypothetical 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, not on the number of calories in the food itself, it often misrepresents actual fat content.
You can get a more accurate read on a food’s fat content by doing the math yourself. Simply multiply the number of grams of fat per serving by 9, then divide that figure by the number of calories per serving. If the answer is 0.20 (20 percent) or less, then the food is acceptable.
Also, scan labels for the words low fat or nonfat. They can be used only on foods that meet certain criteria for fat content. (A low fat food supplies 3 grams or less of fat per serving; a nonfat food, less than 0.5 gram per serving.) Supermarkets now carry literally hundreds of low-fat and nonfat foods. What you see-and taste-just might surprise you.
With some foods, switching from the full fat to the low-fat or nonfat variety can take
some getting used to. For example, people who trade in whole milk for nonfat (skim) milk often complain that the latter tastes thin and watery. But after about 6 months of drinking nonfat milk, it tastes fine-and whole milk tastes too rich. “If you keep your fat intake down,” notes John Foreyt, Ph.D., director of the Nutrition Research Clinic at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, “your fat cravings and preferences for fatty foods eventually decline.”
But as with full-fat foods, you must be careful not to overindulge in low-fat and nonfat foods. A study by Barbara J. Rolls, Ph.D., professor of nutrition and bio behavioral health at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, found that people often consume substantially larger amounts of foods that they know are low-fat or nonfat. And that means lots of extra calories-and eventually extra pounds.