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March is National Nutrition Month and this year’s theme is “Put Your Best Fork Forward.” Clever, right? But what does that really mean? I think it means putting nutritious food in your body every day and while there are many nutrients you need daily, today I want to focus on one. I want to talk about the “F” word. That’s right. I want to talk about fat.

Too many of us haphazardly cut fat out of our diet. According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines, the recommended amount of fat for adults 19 years and older is 20-35 percent of their diet. Your body needs fat for heat and energy, to pad organs and nerves and as a regulator for fat soluble vitamins. It is also essential to normal glandular activity and is involved in many of the body’s metabolic processes. However, it’s the kind of fat you consume that matters.

Let’s start with the fats you want to limit: saturated and trans fats. Saturated fat increases total cholesterol and while our bodies need some saturated fats for physiological and structural functions, we naturally produce plenty to meet those needs. So, we don’t need to supplement saturated fats with our diet. In fact, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines recommend that saturated fats be less than 10% of total calories. Food they are found most heavily in are coconut and palm kernel oils, butter, and animal fats such a beef, pork and chicken.

Trans fat is argumentatively the worst fat you can consume. Simply put, trans fats increase bad cholesterol and decrease good cholesterol. This kind of fat is typically formed through an industrial process that adds hydrogen to vegetable oil, which causes it to become solid at room temperature. You can find trans fats in processed and fried foods, baked goods, creamer, margarine, and even refrigerator dough. The manufactured forms of trans fats are listed as partially hydrogenated or shortening on product labels. If you see any of those words in the ingredient list, you may want to leave it on the shelf.

Some fats, however, offer health-protective benefits. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, for example, are emphasized as a part of a healthy diet. As major sources of essential fatty acids and vitamin E they help raise good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol. There is strong evidence suggesting that replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats helps reduce the risk of heart attacks and related deaths.

So how do we get those healthy fats in our diets? Well, polyunsaturated fats are found in nuts, seeds, fatty fish and vegetable oils such as corn and safflower oil. This category also includes omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids that our bodies do not produce – we have to get them from food. Foods like salmon, mackerel, herring, trout, sunflower seeds, walnuts, flaxseed, canola and soybean oil and eggs all contain polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats can be found in nuts, olive, canola, peanut, safflower and sesame oils, avocados, and peanut butter.

While fat is essential to our health, don’t forget the age old rule of, “all things in moderation.” Good fats can have a beneficial effect on your heart when eaten as a part of a balanced diet and when used to replace saturated and trans fat sources.

Erin Plumberg is a Clinical Dietitian for St. Mary’s Medical Center and can be reached at 816-655-5597.