Dear Overactive eater,
Generally, a case of the munchies is your body's way of signaling that it's time to refuel. If snacks and even full meals don't fill you up, there may be another cause for your ongoing hunger. If diet changes don't do the trick, a visit to a health care provider may ease your mind and your appetite.
Based on your description, it sounds like you can rule out the possibility of a digestive parasite. Rather than fueling your hunger, most stomach bugs cause digestive troubles like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea that can kill your appetite. There is one infamous bug, the Taeniasis parasite (aka tapeworm), that is often blamed for insatiable appetites or unintended weight loss. However, Taeniasis is acquired by eating infected pork or beef so it's not likely that you have a tapeworm since you've been vegetarian for years.
As you suggested, people who follow a vegetarian diet sometimes don't get enough protein. These power nutrients give your body energy and also help you feel full, more so than carbs or fruits and vegetables. Vegetarians also need to consider the kind of proteins they eat. Unlike meats, individual plant foods don't supply all the amino acids that your body needs. To make sure you're getting a complete protein package, try combing two complementary foods that offer different amino acids from these four protein groups: grains, legumes or beans, seeds and nuts, and eggs and dairy. For example, a PBJ sandwich combines grains (go for whole wheat bread!) and legumes (peanuts) for a complete protein. Similarly, a yogurt parfait with fruit and almonds complements dairy with nuts. Newer research has indicated that protein pairings need not be consumed at the same time. That is, it should be sufficient to combine the complementary foods within the same day. For more tasty protein pairings, check out the related Q&As below about protein sources.
Another source of satisfaction comes from eating enough fat. Depending on your level of physical activity and other factors your fat needs will vary. However recent research shows that eating moderate amounts of healthy fats can really help satisfy. In addition to nuts, think avocado and healthy oils (canola, olive, safflower, trans-fat free spreads). Check out ChoseMyPlate.gov to calculate your calorie, protein, fat, and carb needs and determine whether what you're eating should be filling you up.
To make sure you're eating enough of the right proteins and fats as part of a balanced diet, it may also be helpful for you to keep a food journal. You can use the journal to plan out meals, make grocery lists that include healthy and filling snacks, and record when and what you eat throughout the day (and night). The food journal may help you answer some key questions to explain the uptick in your appetite. For example, are you eating enough calories throughout the day to make you feel full? Do your tummy rumblings coincide with any particular emotions like stress, sadness, or happiness? If you do end up seeing a health care provider, the journal will help them understand your diet and what might be causing your excess hunger.
If diet changes don't seem to satisfy your hunger, there may be an underlying health condition that's giving you the munchies. According to the National Institute of Health, causes of increased appetite may include:
- Certain medications (such as corticosteroids and some antidepressants)
- Grave's disease
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
List adapted from the article Appetite - increased at MedlinePlus
Since there are a variety of explanations for your hunger pangs, if adding a healthy balance of proteins and fats to your plate won't satiate your appetite, your best bet is to see a health care provider. Getting medical attention is a good idea especially if you have any other unexplained symptoms like frequent urination, increased heart rate, or feeling very thirsty. Students at Columbia on the Morningside campus can call 212-854-7426 or log on to Open Communicator to make an appointment with a health care provider or nutritionist at Medical Services. If you are a student on the CUMC campus, give the Student Health Center a call at 212-305-3400 to make an appointment with a health care provider or nutritionist.
Fueling up with more complete proteins and healthy fats may help you feel full and keep your body running strong. If your hunger still hangs around, visit a health care provider to find out what your body needs to fill up and feel good. Take care,
Dear Reader and Confused About Calories,
Good questions! While a liquid diet probably wouldn't affect the way your digestive system works, you would still need to ensure that you are receiving plenty of calories and nutrients. Discussing this issue with a health care provider, such as a gastroenterologist or nutritionist, may be good steps if a liquid diet is something you want or think you need to pursue. Also, Reader #1, check out the Related Q&As below for more information about food allergies.
As for the calorie query submitted by Confused About Calories, the fact of the matter is, regardless of the consumption method, a calorie is a calorie. The energy it takes to burn one liquid calorie equals exactly the same as that needed to burn one solid calorie. What throws some people off is the concept of caloric density. Foods that have high water content tend to have lower caloric density (think fruits and veggies), meaning a greater calorie to volume ratio. For example, to consume the same amount of calories you would get from one cup of raisins, you would need to eat nearly ten cups of grapes. What adds to this is that low caloric density foods tend to make you feel fuller faster because of their water content.
This does not mean that simply consuming more liquid will make you want to eat less. Liquid calories may in fact be deceiving because beverages like sodas often contain a lot of calories but do little to satiate hunger. When studies compared food intake between one group given water to drink and the other given soda, there was little difference in the amount of solid calories they ate. However, even though both groups ate roughly the same amount of food, the group who drank the soda consumed more calories overall because of the beverage that accompanied their meal.
Depending on the motivation for your question, you may want to consider meeting with a nutritionist or other health care provider to discuss this matter further. If you are a student at Columbia you can make an appointment with Medical Services by calling x4-2284 or by logging in to Open Communicator. Keep in mind that a primary health care provider can also make any referrals to a specialist, if appropriate. For more nutrition information, visit the Dining Services' nutrition resources. In addition, you may find it helpful to read some of the responses in the Go Ask Alice! fitness and nutrition archives or the related Q&As below.
Remember though, your body needs more than just calories; it also needs nutrients, which may be lacking in a liquid diet. Although liquid calories may seem less significant than calories consumed from solid foods, keep in mind that a raisin in the hand is worth ten grapes in the bush.
Even the savviest of shoppers can be fooled by some of the products on the market today. Food labels can be confusing. Did you know that when a claim appears on a food item stating, for example, that whole grains reduce the risk of heart disease and certain cancers, only 51 percent of its grain contents needs to be whole grain? A little background information will be helpful to you as you navigate your way through the grocery store looking for easy and convenient whole grain foods.
So, what exactly is a whole grain? A grain contains three parts, the bran, endosperm, and germ. The bran is the outer layer, which is high in fiber and B vitamins. The endosperm is primarily starch, or carbohydrates, which turn into sugar in our bodies when we it. The germ is the seed for a new plant and it contains B vitamins, protein, minerals, and healthy oils. When grain is processed, the bran and germ are removed, leaving only the endosperm or starch. This is essentially why whole grains are more nutritious.
And how do we figure out if a food is made from whole grains? It's easy to be tricked into thinking a food is a whole grain when it's not. For example, if an ingredient is listed as unbleached wheat flour, it is still refined flour and not a whole grain. One way to determine if a product is whole grain is if it has a Whole Grain Stamp from the Whole Grains Council. This identifies it at as containing whole grains. However, if there is no stamp, the key way to determine if a product is whole grain can be found in the nutrition label list of ingredients. If the phrase "whole" appears as part of the FIRST ingredient in the ingredient section of the food label, such as "whole wheat flour" or "whole oats," it is likely that it is a whole grain product. Words that are often indicators of a whole grain product also include "stoneground whole," "brown rice," and "wheatberries." Be wary of items listed without the word "whole" before, such as durum wheat or multigrain, because they may not be actual whole grains. You can also visit the Whole Grains Council, which is a good resource for additional information regarding whole grains and packaging, particularly words you may see on packages and how to identify which are whole grain and which are not.
As far as whole grains coming in a convenient package that can be grabbed off the shelf, let's start in the bread and cereal aisle since these items are the main types of food that offer immediate edibility of whole grains. Next we take a walk to the pasta aisle followed by the aisle containing rice and other whole grains, such as barley and quinoa, which typically involve some cooking time. However, many grocery stores now offer areas where you can find all of these whole grains prepared for you, so the final stop is the hot and cold prepared foods area.
For more tips about healthy eating and whole grain choices, check out the Get Balanced! section of the Alice! Health Promotion nutrition initiatives. There are recipes, a guide to healthier eating, and a grocery store shopping list organized by food category.
Hope this clears up some of the confusion,
Dear Fat Frat Guy,
You write that you're sitting around the frat house bored. It sounds as though you may have more time to fit in activity than you realize. Exercise doesn't always need to be a long, intensive workout. Short, frequent bouts can be just as effective as longer ones. Why not go out for a walk? Does your frat house have weights in the basement or other area? Taking advantage of exercise equipment is a great idea, but if there isn't any available, jumping rope between sets of push-ups and sit-ups, in your room or a living room or den, can help alleviate boredom.
If these ideas aren't possible, or you still need some suggestions to resist snacking, a few questions to ask yourself may help. First of all, are you actually hungry? When was the last time you ate? Could you put off eating for 15 minutes? If you can wait 15 minutes and then see how you feel, you may decide that you really weren't hungry after all, or you may even forget all about that snack. If you don't and still want to eat — try to quantify your hunger.
Consider the Hunger and Fullness scale. On a scale from 0 - 10, with 0 being BEYOND HUNGRY as though you haven't eaten in an entire day (not recommended) and 10 representing BEYOND FULL as if you ate three Thanksgiving dinners — again not recommended, see where your hunger or fullness falls:
|1||Extremely hungry, irritable, and cranky|
|3||You have a strong urge to eat, but aren't ready to fall over.|
|4||Just a little hungry|
|5||Totally neutral... neither hungry nor full|
|6||You are a notch past neutral — you could eat more but aren't hungry|
|7||You are feeling satisfied. If you stopped eating at this point, you would need to eat again in about 4 - 4½ hrs.|
|8||You are getting pretty full. If you stopped eating at this level, you would probably get hungry again in 5 - 6 hours.|
|9||You are getting really full, and uncomfortable.|
One way to use this scale is to try to rate your feelings of hunger and fullness. You have to work on paying attention to your body's signals. Make an agreement with yourself that you will eat when your hunger is at 3, and stop eating when you reach 7. If you can ask yourself how you are feeling before taking a snack, you may be able to alleviate or at least cut down on boredom eating. Remember, food's for nutrition and nourishment. If another part of yourself needs nourishment, it's important to figure out what that is and create other ways of meeting that need. Excessive snacking often catches up with us in the form of excess pounds, as you have found. If you repeatedly find yourself eating when you aren't hungry, or when you are no longer hungry, you probably don't need those excess calories.
So, once you realize that you aren't hungry, there are probably a ton of things you can do to pass the time. Getting off your duff and moving your body — somewhere further away from the kitchen — would be a good start!
Dear Not Fully Aware,
Your question is one many people deal with. Some people were taught from an early age to finish everything on their plate, no matter how they felt. This was often rationalized by well-intentioned parents referencing the millions of starving children around the world. Unfortunately, this type of encouragement does little to teach children about listening to their bodies or learning to identify or conceptualize the feelings that come when one is satisfied with the amount or type of food they are eating. This conditioning experienced by many growing up, can carry on into adulthood.
Others are out of touch with their body signals for other reasons. How often have you felt ravenously hungry and then couldn't believe how much you'd eaten? How much food does it seem to take to satisfy your hunger? Letting yourself get really, really hungry distorts awareness of body signals. If you're out of touch or ignore subtle hunger cues, it's extremely difficult to detect subtle fullness. As a result, you're only able to feel extremes. It's difficult to describe what comfortable fullness feels like inside your body, but some people express it as being satisfied and content after eating. Others say it's a subtle feeling of fullness, of not being hungry anymore (even if there's still food on their plate).
You can begin by thinking about how you are feeling while you are eating — a kind of checking in with yourself. This takes a conscious effort. Once you've eaten some of your food, consider asking yourself some of these questions: does the food (still) taste good? Is my hunger beginning to subside? After a few more bites, am I beginning to feel satisfied? Try stopping about halfway through to determine if you've had enough. Try rating your fullness from 1 - 10:
- Ready to collapse from hunger
- I could eat something, but not very hungry
- Not hungry at all
- Comfortably satisfied
- Full to very full
- Disgustingly sick
If you go from a 2 to a 9 easily, perhaps you are going for too long without food, or your last meal was too small (a problem for dieters). Maybe your last meal was lacking important satiety nutrients, such as protein, fat or fiber, which usually help to keep you satisfied over a few hours. Sometimes when we eat very quickly, a large quantity of food is consumed and before we realize it, we're stuffed. If this is your problem, try slowing down, taking your time chewing, swallowing, and resting between bites.
The most important part about eating to a pleasant fullness is to eat consciously — to increase your awareness. This takes practice for many people. Too often, we distract ourselves with other activities — such as studying, watching TV, or surfing the Internet, without realizing that we're full, until the entire bowl of popcorn, liter of soda, or pizza is gone. Give yourself time to enjoy and appreciate your food, and you can notice and identify its effects on your body.
For more information and insight, check out Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch's book, Intuitive Eating. If you are a Columbia student, you may want to make an appointment to speak with a nutritionist. Morningside campus students can contact Medical Services; CUMC students can reach out to the Student Health Service.
Best of luck!
Dear Mom trying to offer healthy choices, but having some technical difficulties,
To think, while some children beg for the latest neon-colored sugar cereal to hit the shelves, your two children are tallying fiber grams. They have fostered their interest in nutrition. Educating about and encouraging healthy behaviors are keys to lowering risks of chronic diseases, such as heart disease and cancer, later in life.
As you are aware, the "Nutrition Facts" label is a helpful tool for understanding what each food contributes to daily nutrient intake. These labels provide the amount of carbohydrates, fat, protein, as well as percent daily values for a number of nutrients. Percent Daily Values (DV) are based on a 2000-calorie eating plan, which can be confusing, because that's more calories than most of us need. For an in-depth explanation about this or other food label content issues, check the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), or the Kidshealth.org Figuring Out Food Labels page for kid friendly explanations.
Unfortunately, curious consumers will not find "Nutrition Fact" labels on all foods, even if foods have packaging. Some specific exceptions to food labeling requirements include:
- Ready-to-eat food that is not for immediate consumption but is prepared primarily on site — for example, bakery, deli, and candy store items
- Food shipped in bulk, as long as it is not for sale in that form to consumers
- Medical foods, such as those used to address the nutritional needs of people with certain diseases
- Plain coffee and tea, some spices, and other foods that contain insignificant amounts of nutrients
Though you might not see nutrient labels on fresh foods, the information needs to be nearby. The FDA created a voluntary program to promote retailer labeling of the top 20 most commonly sold fruits, vegetables, and fish, as well as the 45 best-selling cuts of raw meat and poultry. The nutrient information needs to be available as a brochure, leaflet, notebook, or stickers in the appropriate grocery department. Labels for fruits, veggies, and raw fish include the following:
- Name of the fruit, vegetable, or fish
- Serving size
- Calories per serving
- Amount of protein, carbohydrates, fat, and sodium per serving
- Percent of the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA) for iron, calcium, and vitamins A and C per serving
For nutrient information for 5,900 foods from alfalfa sprouts to zucchini at the click of a button, look to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Nutrient Database. A simple keyword search and portion size specification will yield the complete nutrient profile of your food.
One of the most comprehensive print versions of nutrient composition tables is Bowes & Church's Food Values of Portions Commonly Used, by Jean A. T. Pennington, Ph.D. Some 8,500 foods are listed according to food group with analysis results for 30 nutrients, but they are not in "Nutrition Facts" label format.
Hopefully these resources will help make your technical difficulties with nutrition labels a thing of the past!
Regardless of your activity level, breakfast is an essential part of a healthful lifestyle and is also important for maintaining energy all day long. The motto here is anything for breakfast is better than nothing at all. Think of your body as a car and food as gas. Without gas, your car cannot get from one place to another.
The rate at which your body uses calories for energy is known as metabolism. Think of metabolism as the motor of your car. Metabolism is directly related to energy levels, so the higher your metabolism, the more energy you have throughout the day. When you are sleeping, your body naturally decreases its metabolism. When you wake up, there is an increase in metabolism, which peaks by noon. How much energy you have during this time is contingent on how much food calories your body has to use for energy. Breakfast becomes the first stop to the gas station before your road trip. So basically, eating breakfast actually helps maintain high energy levels throughout the day. In fact, the more hearty a breakfast you have, the more your metabolism motor will roar!
You do have to stick to some guidelines, of course, to promote optimal energy.
The best range of calories for breakfast is between 350 to 500. Below 350, your body will not fulfill the requirements for morning energy usage; above 500, your body may store unneeded calories as fat.
Plan and eat a balanced breakfast meal including complex carbohydrate, protein, fat, and a fruit or vegetable.
Quantity to Aim for
- 1 to 2 servings of complex carbohydrates. One serving equals 1 piece of bread, ½ cup of cooked oatmeal, 1 cup of dry cereal, 1 English muffin, ½ bagel, ¼ cup of granola, 1 small muffin.
- 1 serving of protein. For example, 1 cup of yogurt, ½ cup of cottage cheese, 1 ounce of cheese, 1 large egg, 2 ounces of smoked salmon, 1 cup of milk or soy milk, 2 tablespoons (T) of peanut butter, or ¼ cup of nuts or seeds.
- 1 serving of fat. E.g., 1 teaspoon (t) of butter, 1 t of oil, 1 tablespoon (T) of cream cheese. But check your protein and carbohydrates for fat, there's no need to add extra if you have a serving of fat in your granola or omelet.
- 1 serving of a fruit or vegetable. That is, 1 medium piece of fruit, 1 cup of cut fruit, ¼ cup dried fruit, 6 ounces of fruit juice, 1 cup of raw or ½ cup of cooked vegetables, 1 cup of vegetable juice.
Some examples of energizing breakfast meals include:
2 pieces of toast
2 T of peanut butter
1 medium banana
2 servings of complex carbohydrates
1 serving of protein
1 serving of fat
1 serving of fruit
1 serving of complex carbohydrates
1 cup of cooked oatmeal with
1 cup of 2 percent fat milk
¼ cup of raisins
2 servings of complex carbohydrates
1 serving of protein
1 serving of fat
1 serving of fruit
1 small muffin
1 cup of plain low fat yogurt
1 cup of orange juice
1 serving of complex carbohydrates
As you see, there are many delicious ways to get from point A to point B every morning. Imagine your surprise when you see the results with more energy!
Put down your fork and raise your glass. Here's to feasting sensibly, moderately, and contentedly:
Before the meal:
- Eat your regular daily meals rather than skipping to save room for a big holiday meal. Being overly hungry is a potential recipe for too much holiday cheer. Instead, eat a snack before you head out (vegetables or a piece of fruit are good options) so you will be less likely to overeat when you arrive.
- If you need to bring a food to share, bring a healthier option. You can also try using ingredient substitutions to reduce the fat, sugar, salt, and calorie content of some of your favorite holiday recipes.
- ChooseMyPlate.gov also has a guide for making healthier choices during the holidays that you can review.
As you’re deciding what to put on your plate:
- Focus more on the people, less on the fare. Try to spend time talking with other guests. Play a game, go for a walk, or try to engage in other activities that are not focused on eating.
- Take a moment to think about the food options in front of you before deciding what to put on your plate. For example, if you choose stuffing and mashed potatoes, consider balancing your meal with some veggies instead of grabbing a roll with butter.
- Foods that are high in fat make us feel full. If your holiday table is filled with fried foods or dishes with rich sauces, enjoy a limited amount of these. If the meal is served family style (passed around the table in serving dishes), it's fine to decline some items. For items you do select, take portions that are the amount you usually eat. Many people pile up their plates, and then feel obliged to eat everything.
- If the holiday meal is served buffet-style, check out all the offerings before getting in line. You can avoid overloading your plate by taking only the items you really want to eat. Buffets are invitations for over-sampling the savories and sweets.
- If it's appropriate to do so, get up between courses. An extra pair of hands clearing the table is often appreciated and will give you a chance to digest.
Some food for thought while you chew:
- It can take 20 minutes or more to feel full. During the meal, eat slowly, chew thoroughly, chat with your neighbors, and sip water regularly to let your brain catch up with your stomach and register your fullness. Check in with yourself to see how you're feeling. Are you starting to get satiated? Try to become more in tune with your fullness cues and listen to them.
- Watch out for the effects of alcohol. It increases one's appetite, setting the stage for overeating (it is also high in calories).
Actions to take after the holiday repast:
- Take a stroll after the meal to get some exercise and help the food settle in your stomach.
Enjoying the holiday season doesn't have to mean overindulging in holiday cheer. Being mindful of your eating (and drinking) doesn't have to be limiting; it can actually enhance your experience.
The frustration you feel in controlling your sweet tooth is understandable. There are many facets to this issue, so no one answer applies to everyone. Based on your situation described here, you can consider the following possibilities and see how they play a role for you. First, you mentioned that you are trying to lose weight. Quite often, when a person tries to shed some pounds, s/he cuts back on the size and composition of his or her meals. A recent fad has been to limit carbohydrates in one's diet. This leaves most people unfulfilled, still "wanting" something else. Others cut way back on fat, compromising flavor and fullness. Some eat what they think they should eat, without enjoying their food. Do any of these situations sound familiar to you? If your meal is satisfying, you may be able to handle the craving and let it pass, or not experience the craving at all. Try to incorporate sensory appeal — different tastes, textures, colors, and food temperatures — into your meals. You'll be surprised as to what a difference these factors can make.
Second, you wrote that you recently quit smoking. Congratulations! That's the healthiest change you can make. Everything tastes better when you become a non-smoker. With smoking cessation, however, some people experience variations in appetite and increased cravings for sweets to compensate for the lack of nicotine. These are generally temporary. Realize that you have already overcome a difficult obstacle. Asking yourself to quit smoking, lose weight, exercise more, and stop eating sweets is a lot to expect of one person at one time. Reconsider what you can successfully accomplish, setting short- and long-term goals that are realistic for you and workable within your typical schedule and patterns.
Third, restriction can lead to overindulgence. Some people find that the more they try to stop eating something, such as sweets, the more they want or the more out of control they become when they finally succumb. Allowing yourself one treat each day is a way to finding some middle ground. This can be difficult to work through at first, but the potential is there if you stick with it. One approach is to buy a single sized serving item daily, whether it's candy, a cookie, or whatever you like. Knowing that you can have a little every day can make the food seem less forbidden and more acceptable. This approach reinforces the concept of "a reasonable amount," and can help in curbing excessive intake.
Last (and perhaps most importantly), some people use sweets or other types of cravings and/or overeating as a coping mechanism for emotions. Do you find, or have you ever found, the cravings come when you are stressed, bored, lonely, sad, or even happy? As children, many of us were soothed with a cookie or other treat, and have learned to tame emotions with food, associating such eats with comfort or nostalgia. What starts as a coping mechanism can turn into a well-ingrained routine, becoming a harder habit to break over time. If this applies to you, you can take some time to observe what is happening. Try to determine what your patterns are. Are there other ways you can deal with your feelings besides resorting to sweets? For some people, distracting themselves with activity can work; for others, facing their issues by journaling, for example, can help. Either way, taking yourself away from the craving for a short while may help it to subside and/or pass. Sometimes this practice won't work, and sometimes it will. However, the more times you try, the more successes from which you can draw. In the long run, working on changing this behavior can enable you to feel more in control, rather than allowing the craving to control you.
So, it isn't so simple — but that doesn't mean it's not possible. Best wishes on turning this pattern into something healthier, too.
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I found this issue interesting, because I, too, MUST have a sweet after my evening meal. I don't know why, but there it is. Instead of obsessing over the fact...
I found this issue interesting, because I, too, MUST have a sweet after my evening meal. I don't know why, but there it is. Instead of obsessing over the fact that I have this craving, I find a way to satisfy it without going overboard. Deprivation will only lead to overindulgence, so build your favorite foods into your eating plan. I don't diet; don't believe in 'dieting.' I DO believe in eating a healthy, lower fat diet and never depriving myself. As long as you can trust yourself to not overdo it, a small sweet treat with a cup or two of tea in the evening should do the trick in staving off those cravings.
July 25, 200320494
The "good fat/bad fat" you've heard about refers to fat's potential to cause disease. All fats have the same amount of calories, but they vary in their chemical compositions and effects on health. Fats are made of chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms. The saturation refers to whether all the available spaces on the carbon chain are bonded to hydrogen atoms, or if there are any hydrogen atoms missing. The three forms of fat found in nature are:
These fats have all of their carbon atoms filled (saturated) with hydrogen. Saturated fat is primarily found in high-fat cuts of meat, poultry with the skin, whole and 2 percent dairy products, butter, cheese, and tropical oils: coconut, palm, and palm kernel. Our body needs a small amount (about 20 grams) of saturated fat each day, but the typical American diet usually exceeds that amount. Too much saturated fat may cause a person's bad cholesterol (LDL) to rise and may also increase the risk of developing certain types of cancer. You can look for the amount of saturated fats in a serving of food on the nutrition label, under the heading "Saturated Fat" below the larger heading of "Total Fat."
These fats have one space missing a hydrogen atom, instead containing a double bond between two adjacent carbon atoms. Monounsaturated fat is found in olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, and in most nuts and nut butters. This type of fat does not cause cholesterol to increase. When a person substitutes monounsaturated fat for saturated fat, it helps to lower the bad cholesterol and protects the good cholesterol (HDL) from going down. The amount of monosaturated fats (and polyunsaturated fats, see below) is not listed separately on the food label, but it can be calculated by subtracting the saturated and trans fats (see below) from the total fat.
These fats have more than one hydrogen atom missing in the carbon chain and therefore contain more than one double bond. The two major categories of polyunsaturated fats are Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 means there is a double bond in the third space from the end of the carbon chain. These fats are extremely healthful in that they protect against sudden death from heart attack. They can also help people lower their triglycerides. Omega-3s are used by the body to produce hormone-like substances with anti-inflammatory effects. The best sources of Omega-3s are fatty fish, such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, and rainbow trout, among others. Canola oil, walnuts, and flaxseed also contain some Omega-3s.
Omega-6 fats have a double bond in the sixth space from the end of the carbon chain. These fats are found in oils such as corn, soybean, cottonseed, sunflower, and safflower. Omega-6 fatty acids are used in hormone-like substances that promote inflammation. Replacing saturated fats with Omega-6 fats may reduce levels of total, bad, and good cholesterol. Many health experts suggest that the ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids should be 4:1 for optimal health. (Most Americans get 14 - 20:1 — a lot more than needed!) These fats are not listed separately on the food label.
The other type of fat that is found in food, but isn't natural, is:
Hydrogenated Fats (also known as Trans Fats)
These are manufactured by adding hydrogen to a polyunsaturated fat, making it solid at room temperature. However, instead of having the qualities of a polyunsaturated fat, it takes on some of the traits of a saturated fat. In the past, trans fats were widely used in foods as a replacement for saturated fats. Then it was discovered that trans fat was even worse than saturated fat in terms of its effects on health. In addition to raising LDL cholesterol, as saturated fat does, it also decreases the level of HDL cholesterol.
Many companies have found ways to eliminate trans fats from their products and all companies are now required to list the amount of trans fats on the nutrition label. Be aware that products containing half a gram or less of trans fat per serving are allowed to report zero grams of trans fat on the nutrition label. The best way to check for trans fat is to read the ingredients label; if you see the words "partially hydrogenated" or "hydrogenated" in front the word oil, the food probably has a small amount of trans fat. This doesn't mean you shouldn't eat the food, but you should limit the amount you eat — a little can add up to a lot. Some foods contain small amounts of naturally-occurring trans fats, but these fats, unlike man-made trans fats, probably do not increase the risk of heart disease and other conditions. Moreover, some manufacturers are now replacing trans fat with saturated fats, so be sure to check the nutrition label to keep your total intake of unhealthy fats in check.
Although too much can have negative results, fats are certainly required for good health. Here are some of the positives — fats:
- carry flavors
- impart desirable textures — smooth, creamy, and crispy, to name a few
- give us a sense of fullness and satisfy hunger
- are needed to absorb and store certain vitamins and plant chemicals
- can contribute to a person's enjoyment of food
- are essential building blocks in cell production, maintenance, and repair
- provide and store energy for the body's use
Bear in mind, though, that the calories from fat can add up fast since they are more concentrated in fat than in protein or carbohydrate. Also, as mentioned above, consuming too much saturated and trans fat may result in negative health consequences in some people. The secret is not to stay to one extreme or another; try to be flexible in your fat intake. What does that mean? Balance your meals and snacks. If you find you have a high fat meal (especially high in saturated fat), make the next one lower in fat. Or, if you choose a higher fat food, complement it with a lower fat one. We don't have to live an "all or nothing" philosophy when it comes to fat.