Fats

What are fats, and are they really the nutritional bad guys?

Fats in dairy products can be fine for kids, especially young ones
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What are fats? Along with protein and carbohydrates, fats are a source of food energy (calories). They are a combination of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, and they sometimes get a bad rap. They're all lumped together and accused of being the source of unwanted pounds.

However, fats are essential to our bodies and our health. Fatty acids are important to brain development and also help with blood clotting and controlling inflammation.

Fats keep our skin and hair healthy. They help the body absorb certain vitamins and move them through the blood.

So which fats should you feed your family?

Kinds of Dietary Fats

Saturated fats are found in animal products, such as whole milk and meats. They are also found in some plant products, such as coconut and palm oils. These kind of fats should be a limited part of your family's diet. Eating too many foods with a lot of saturated fat can lead to high levels of LDL cholesterol, sometimes called "bad" cholesterol.

Unsaturated fats, such as fish and most vegetable oils, are healthier sources of fat, but still have a lot of calories. They can be divided into polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats. And both can actually lower LDL cholesterol. Polyunsaturated fats are an important source of omega-3 fatty acids, You can get them in certain types of fish, nuts, oils, seeds, and dark leafy greens.

Trans fats or trans fatty acids form when vegetable oils harden (if they don't harden completely, the fats are called partially hydrogenated). These can also raise "bad" cholesterol levels and lower "good" cholesterol levels. Trans fats are found in fried and processed foods, margarine, and commercial baked goods.

Check labels for hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, and avoid them.

The Food and Drug Administration has warned against consuming trans fats, and many food manufacturers and fast food chains have responded by eliminating them or phasing them out. And nutrition labels now indicate clearly whether a product contains trans fats (as long as they are limited to less than 0.5 grams per serving size). So keep checking those labels before you buy.

What Are Fats on Food Labels?

When nutritional labels claim a food is fat-free, low-fat, or reduced fat, what does that mean? Here are the rules in the U.S.:

  • Fat-free means no more than 0.5 grams of fat per serving.
  • Low-fat means no more than 3 grams of fat per serving.
  • Reduced-fat means the item contains 25% less fat per serving than the regular version.
  • Light or lite means the item contains 50% less fat per serving than the regular version.

Those last two are relative terms, which means they could still contain a pretty high amount of fat. And they often contain extra sugar to make up for the missing fat.

But keep in mind that babies and toddlers need fat (and cholesterol) for brain development. Between 1 and 3 years old, kids need about 30% to 35% of their calories to come from fat. For kids 4 and up, that number is 25% to 35%.

Overall, good practices for fat in your family's diet include:

  • Cook with monounsatured oils, like olive and canola.
  • Choose low-fat dairy products (for kids 2 and up).
  • Instead of frying foods, choose grilling, baking, or roasting.
  • Limit visits to fast-food restaurants (where your food might be served with a hefty dose of trans fats, not to mention sodium).

See all fitness and nutrition terms.

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