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Help Arrives in Battle of the Bulge

By Bonnie J. Powell
Special to American Forces Press Service

FORT LEE, Va., Aug. 25, 1997 – Everyone agrees: Fat is bad.

Or is it?

For decades, Americans have been told to reduce the amount of fat they eat. What it really boils down to, though, is not only how much, but what kind. To help military consumers make the right choices, the Defense Commissary Agency has a new brochure, "Dietary Fats and Your Health," available in stores.

Approved by the DoD Nutrition Committee, the brochure outlines the facts about fats and cholesterol. It also has a handy chart showing the composition of common cooking fats, from lard to canola oil.

"Everyone needs fat in their diet," said Col. Colin Meyer, chief of the agency's Public Health and Food Quality Assurance Unit and DeCA's representative on the DoD Nutrition Committee. Fats are a major nutrient, important for growth and development, but there are limits to the amount we should eat because of their link to heart disease and cancer. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends adults remove as much saturated fat from their diets as they can, Meyer said, but that's sometimes a tall order for today's busy military families.

Recent studies show that Americans' fat consumption decreased between 1980 and 1991, but is still above ideal goals. Worse, reduced- fat foods may lead people to eat more! Because they assume they are eating healthier, they feel they have a license to overeat.

Consumers have been warned for years about the dangers of cholesterol. In food, all cholesterol is the same. But within our blood, it comes in two forms -- low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, and high-density lipoprotein, or HDL. The LDL is the bad, artery-clogging kind; HDL seems to have a protective effect against heart disease. In addition to being in our food, cholesterol is manufactured by our bodies, so consuming less of it may have only a slight effect on our levels.

There are three basic types of fats: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Many animal-origin foods are high in saturated fats. Put simply, there's nothing good about saturated fats -- they are the real culprit in coronary heart disease and some types of cancer. Polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats are better. They are found in many plant foods and have actually been shown to lower blood levels of LDL cholesterol.

"All things considered," said Meyer, "people need to pay more attention to the type of fat they eat. There is a huge difference between using olive oil [monounsaturated] and butterfat [saturated], and your primary focus should be to minimize saturated fat consumption."

According to Meyer, another factor in the fat equation comes in a fairly new package: trans-fatty acids. Many commonly used margarines and shortenings are chemically altered or "hydrogenated" to make them more solid and butter-like at room temperature. But that process also causes them to become nearly as bad as saturated fats.

In general, said Meyer, canola, olive and peanut oils are better for you -- they're highest in monounsaturated fats and lowest in saturated fat. Canola oil in particular is widely available in commissaries. Butterfat and coconut oil are the highest in saturated fats and should be avoided. To reduce exposure to trans-fatty acids, shoppers might try liquid margarine instead of solid.

How do you know about fat content? Read the labels on packaged food. They often tell you the fat content and type, said Meyer. The higher fats are on the ingredients list, the higher their presence is.

"The best thing that people can do to improve their diet without dieting is to make more healthful decisions," said Meyer. "The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends we reduce total dietary fat intake to 30 percent of total calories and reduce saturated fat intake to less than 10 percent of calories." He said fast foods are often a crap shoot when you don't know what they were fried in.

The American Dietetic Association cautions consumers that reduced-fat or fat-free food doesn't mean calorie-free. The calories saved in removing fat are frequently regained by adding sugars for palatability.

"Good nutrition can be very confusing," said Meyer. "'Dietary Fats and Your Health' can help take the mystery out."

(Powell is a Defense Commissary Agency public affairs specialist.)

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