Tag Archives: fat

The not-so-sweet truth about sugar and your health.

You are probably aware that eating too much sugar is bad for your health. Excessive sugar intake causes hormonal changes and inflammation that can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. For decades an emphasis was placed on lowering fat intake, especially saturated fat and cholesterol, to reduce the risk of obesity and heart disease.

Unfortunately, much of this advice was misguided and while fat intake went down, sugar consumption in processed and prepared food increased. This is now seen as a primary cause of the current obesity and diabetes epidemic. The impact of sugar on health and steps you can take to reduce sugar intake are the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Sugar cubes

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When it comes to trans fats, zero is too much!

Nutrition recommendations are often confusing and contradictory. To make things worse, the nutrition information provided on food packages can be difficult to decipher or downright misleading. In my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week I share information about trans fats and how zero doesn’t always mean none.

trans-fat-label


Remember when fat was bad and carbohydrates were good? The idea was that eating fat led to weight gain, a problem that could be solved by eating less fat. Then carbohydrates, including bread and pasta, were blamed for obesity and other health problems which led to the low-carb diet craze.

The truth is that all fats and all carbohydrates aren’t necessarily good or bad. Fats come in different forms, some of which have positive health effects and others that are linked to poor health and disease. Similarly, carbohydrates also come in different forms, some you should eat more of and some you should limit. This is why you hear people talk about good carbs and bad carbs or good fats and bad fats. In reality, no nutrients are really “bad” as long as you consume them in reasonable amounts balanced by exercise and other activity.

Nutrition recommendations for good health call for a moderate fat intake (20–35% total calories) with an emphasis on monounsaturated and omega-3 fats, while limiting saturated and trans fats. Olive oil, canola oil, and avocados are good sources of monounsaturated fats. Fish, including salmon and tuna, are high in omega-3 fatty acids. Saturated fats are found primarily in animal products, especially red meat and butter, as well as tropical oils like palm and coconut oil.

Most trans fats come from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, which are polyunsaturated fats that have been modified for use in frying and in baking (margarine is a partially hydrogenated vegetable oil). While there is much debate about the health effects of the different types of fats, almost everyone agrees that trans fats should be avoided.

The Nutrition Facts panel on food packages also contains information that is supposed to help you make choices that are lower in total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat. Unfortunately, this is not as straightforward as it seems. By law, manufacturers can list trans fat at 0 grams as long as it contains less than 0.5 grams. This means that a food can contain up to 0.49 grams of trans fat per serving even though it is listed as 0 grams!

This may not seem like much, but consider that the American Heart Association recommends limiting trans fat intake to 2 grams per day, at most. You could easily exceed this limit with just a few servings of “trans-fat free” foods. When it comes to trans fats, zero can be too much. It’s no wonder so many people struggle to make healthy food choices!

How can you tell if zero isn’t really zero? One way is to look for “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” in the ingredient list, which indicates that trans fats are present.

Nutrition information is confusing, to say the least. Even if you know to look at the Nutrition Facts panel on food packages, the information there is not always easy to understand. In some cases, what you see on the label does not reflect what you are really eating.

One step toward making healthy choices is to eat “real,” unprocessed food as much as possible. Fats that occur naturally in food are less of a concern than modified fats that are added in food processing. So, don’t worry so much about fat in meat and dairy and use natural oils, like olive oil. You will likely find that these “real” foods are not just better for you, but better tasting, too!


Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. 
But it doesn't have to be that way.
What can I help you with?
 drbrianparr@gmail.com | http://twitter.com/drbrianparr

Know your nutrients: Fats

This month I am writing about the major nutrients in our diets. Last week I provided information about carbohydrates, the major energy source in our diets. This week the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard  is fats, including saturated fats, unsaturated (monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and trans) fats, omega-3 fats, and cholesterol.

High_Fat_Foods


Fats tend to get a bad reputation since they are higher in calories than carbohydrates and protein and have traditionally been associated with obesity and heart disease when eaten in excess. In reality, some dietary fats are detrimental to your health, while others have health benefits. These consequences are partly linked to the effect of the fats on the LDL (“bad”) and HDL (“good”) cholesterol in your blood and partly to other factors, including blood clotting and inflammation.

Traditionally, cholesterol and saturated fats have been linked to heart disease because they raise levels of LDL cholesterol. Cholesterol is only found in animals, whereas saturated fats are in animals and tropical oils such as palm and coconut oil. This is why you may have heard that you should avoid foods that contain these fats, including red meat and eggs.

It turns out that the link between saturated fat, cholesterol, and heart disease isn’t what we long believed, so these dietary recommendations are being revisited. There has been much discussion in the media and scientific literature about the basis for our current recommendations leading to spirited debate among nutritionists and other health professionals.

If you are interested in learning more about the history and science behind the cholesterol-saturated fat-heart disease relationship, the recent book The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz,  an interview with the author on The People’s Pharmacy public radio radio show, and  the article Ending the War on Fat in Time magazine are good, user-friendly places to start. Keep in mind that there are many scientists who disagree and research to support the health benefits of reducing saturated fat—and fat in general—in the diet. But there is growing support for the notion that maybe fat isn’t as bad as we initially believed.

Unsaturated fats are found in plant oils. Polyunsaturated fats tend to lower both LDL and HDL cholesterol. Monounsaturated fats are associated with lower LDL but they do not lower HDL cholesterol–this is better. Oils high in polyunsaturated fats include corn and soybean oil while olive and canola oils are rich in monounsaturated fats.

Trans fats are found mostly in modified oils which are hydrogenated to make them more solid and have a longer shelf life. For example, when corn oil (unsaturated fat) is partially hydrogenated it becomes more trans and is more solid—margarine. Trans fats are used in baked and fried foods and can be identified on food labels (most of the time) or by the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredient list. Trans fats have the effect of raising LDL while lowering HDL cholesterol, a bad combination!

There are three essential omega-3 fats in the diet: ALA, EPA, and DHA. Two of these, EPA and DHA, are primarily found in fish and are associated with reduced risk of heart attack due to their beneficial effects reducing inflammation and blood clotting. Other sources of omega-3 fats include flax seeds, which are high in ALA. The evidence is strongest for beneficial health effects of EPA and DHA, so eating fish or taking fish oil supplements is a common recommendation.

Dietary fat should account for 20–35% of your total calories. The typical American diet is a bit too high in total fat, mostly from unhealthy sources. Your goal should be to make food choices that will shift your intake of fat away from unhealthy sources (trans fats) to more healthy sources (monounsaturated and omega-3 fats). Keep in mind that “fat-free” foods aren’t necessarily healthy options.

Fortunately, trans fats are less common now than they were even a few years ago, but staying away from fried foods and checking the labels on prepackaged snacks will help you avoid trans fats. Switching to olive or canola oil to increase your consumption of monounsaturated fats and eating fish 2–3 times per week can help you get enough omega-3 fats.

Just as with carbohydrates, you should get your dietary fats from real food (like butter), not processed foods (margarine). If you do that, you won’t need to worry so much about the types of fats you eat. And don’t forget that all fat contains calories, so don’t overeat even the healthier fats, especially if you are trying to control your weight!


Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. 
But it doesn't have to be that way.
What can I help you with?
 drbrianparr@gmail.com | http://twitter.com/drbrianparr

The attack of our toxic food environment. And how to fight back!

The term “toxic environment” was popularized by Kelly Brownell, an obesity and weight loss researcher, years ago to refer to conditions that promote the consumption of high-calorie, unhealthy food and encourage being physically inactive. This combination is thought to be a major factor that contributes to obesity and other chronic diseases, so understanding both aspects deserves our attention. Hy Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week  focuses on our toxic food environment. (Next week I will explore our toxic activity environment)


Fastfood One characteristic of the toxic environment is that food is available almost everywhere. Gas stations have evolved into convenience stares that happen to sell gas, tempting you as you enter to pay. Displays of candy, soda, and other snacks are present at nearly every checkout lane in nearly every store, even stores that have nothing to do with food. You can find vending machines that sell candy and soda most places you go, even hospitals and schools. Many workplaces have a common area where you can typically find a candy dish or a break room with vending machines. Even going to a meeting at work may mean sitting around a table with a plate of donuts in the center. Sure, you don’t have to buy a soda when you pay for gas or take a donut from the plate, but resisting can be difficult. The more you are around food, the more likely you are to eat it, even if you aren’t hungry. Whether your goal is to eat less food or to eat healthier food, the world we live in makes it difficult. It’s not just willpower, either. We are all susceptible to marketing, whether done by a store, restaurant, or a friend with a plate of freshly baked brownies. The power of marketing, combined with the fact that most of us don’t really understand food or nutrition, is difficult to overcome. It gets worse. It turns out that much of the food we are continually exposed to is of poor nutritional quality. Convenience foods such as candy, snacks, and drinks tend to be high in calories, mostly from added sugar and/or fat, and low in nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Many restaurant meals, both fast food and casual dining, are similar in this way. Even prepackaged meals that you eat at home tend to be high in calories and low in healthy nutrients. So, not only are we almost always around food, much of that food is unhealthy. It also turns out that these unhealthy, calorie-dense foods come in portions that contain a shocking number of calories that can contribute to weight gain. Think about soda, for example. It used to be that you could buy a soda in a 12 oz. can or a 16 oz. bottle. Now 20 oz. bottles are common and even larger sizes are almost always an option. The same is true for candy and snacks, like chips. As portions increase, so do the calories we consume. To be fair, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with having so many foods and drinks available to us. We don’t need to eat these foods, right? But, all too often, we do. And when the excess calories from all of this food are combined with a low level of physical activity, a “perfect storm” is created that almost always leads to weight gain. Changing our food environment is difficult, maybe even impossible. But we can change the way we interact with our environment. This includes being more mindful of what, when, and why we are eating. Being aware of internal signals like hunger and external forces like advertising and peer pressure can help us make smarter decisions within our toxic food environment.

Are fat-free and sugar-free foods healthy? Maybe not!

Have you ever felt confused by the health claims made about some foods? If so, you are not alone. Nutrition is isn’t always easy to understand and, unfortunately, misleading information on food labels only makes it worse.

There are a great many foods that seem as though they would be healthy choices for weight loss or good health in general. Surprisingly, some of these low-fat and low-sugar alternatives aren’t as healthy as you might think.

This is because, in many cases, the claims on the label only tell part of the story. This isn’t to say that the information is false, but it does require some interpretation to understand whether these foods are really a healthy choice.

My Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week includes two examples of label language that seems to indicate a healthier option, but may not necessarily be the case:

1. Fat-free

Cutting back on fat intake is a good way to reduce calories and is typically recommended for weight loss. It is also a major part of traditional recommendations to lower cholesterol and prevent heart disease, although recent research suggests this may not be so important.

In order to meet a demand for lower fat and lower calorie foods, manufacturers have long offered fat-free versions of popular items. Cookies, snack foods, and salad dressings are among the most popular fat-free foods, especially for people who are trying to lose weight.

However, the number of calories in the fat-free foods may be the same as the full-fat versions because manufacturers often add sugar to make these lower fat foods taste as good. This is often the case for cookies, cakes, and other fat-free baked goods.

In the end, these fat-free foods may not really be lower in calories. And common sense tells us that the best way to reduce calories is to eat fewer of these snack foods and dressings in the first place.

 2. Sugar-free

Reducing sugar intake is also a popular way to limit calories in many foods and beverages. Currently, sugar is viewed as a major contributor to obesity and poor health in general, so this also makes some foods appear to be healthier than they really are.

While it is true that sugar-free versions of desserts and snack foods do usually contain fewer calories, the alternative sweeteners used instead raise some concerns. While there is no good evidence that these sweeteners are harmful, they certainly don’t make these foods any healthier.

It is important to note that the concern is with foods that have added sugar, such as packaged or prepared desserts, baked goods, and snacks. Foods with naturally occurring sugars like fruits, fruit juices, milk, and some vegetables are not worth worrying about.

Again, the most reasonable approach to creating a healthy diet is to eat fewer foods with added sugar, not looking for foods that replace added sugar with artificial sweeteners.

The Bottom Line

The problem for most people isn’t that they are eating cookies with too much sugar or salad dressing with too much fat, it’s that they are eating too many cookies and using too much dressing in the first place. Lowering fat or sugar in these foods does little to make people healthier.

The only way to do that would be to limit the intake of these processed foods in favor of more “real” food. Indeed, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and natural oils (like olive oil) are widely thought to be healthful, certainly better than processed and modified alternatives.

When fat attacks! And how to win the battle.

My Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week is about fat. It turns out that fat is far more than just a place to store extra calories. Fat has metabolic and physiological effects that can promote disease, including diabetes and heart disease. And that is how your fat can attack you.

But regular exercise can offset or reverse many of the negative effects of excess fat. This is why people who are “fat but fit” may fare better than people who have a normal body weight, but don’t exercise.

If you want to learn more about the role of adipose tissue on health, these are two articles are a good place to start (fair warning–they are high-sci):

George Ntaios, Nikolaos K. Gatselis, Konstantinos Makaritsis, George N. Dalekos. Adipokines as mediators of endothelial function and atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis 2013;227(2): 216-221. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.atherosclerosis.2012.12.029

Coelho M, Oliveira T, Fernandes R. Biochemistry of adipose tissue: an endocrine organ. Arch Med Sci. 2013;9(2):191-200. http://dx.doi.org/10.5114/aoms.2013.33181