I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a calculator on hand at mealtime. I don’t weigh my portions – though I do use rather small plates – and I have never figured the actual percentages or grams of things from the daily recommended allowance categories as I plan dinner. I do, however, try to pay careful attention to what I eat, what I buy at the market and how things are prepared for the table. And I always leave something on the plate, despite my ‘clean plates club’ upbringing. It’s a show of strength. Or a stab at discipline. Or indicates I did not care for the menu.
The US Department of Agriculture has all sorts of recommendations and guidelines regarding dietary fat intake. Some are easy to understand and comply with, others are not. As with all these issues, we need to use common sense and keep our wits about us. Fats are both good and bad, if you will, and so is advice, no matter where it comes from.
Here, then, are the recommendations for dietary fat and cholesterol intake, according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans:
- Total fat. The recommendation, which includes all types of dietary fat, is that we limit total daily intake to 20 to 35 percent. Based on a 2,000 calorie-per-day diet, this means 44 to 78 grams of total fat per day. We might look at it as 1/5th of our calories per day, leaning towards the lower side of the recommendation scale. The major food sources of these fats are plant and animal-based foods.
- Monounsaturated fat. There is no specific recommended amount; the guidelines simply recommend that, while respecting the total fat allowance of 20% or so, you eat foods rich in this healthy fat. The best sources include olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil, avocados, poultry, nuts and seeds.
- Polyunsaturated fat. Here again, there is no specific recommended daily amount from this category. Simply stay within the total daily fat allowance guideline while you eat foods containing this healthy fat, including poultry, nuts, seeds, nut oils (such as peanut) and vegetable oils (safflower, corn, sunflower, soy and cottonseed).
- Omega-3 fatty acids. Once again, no specific amount is recommended, but the fats you do need everyday should include foods from this group: fatty, cold-water fish (salmon, herring and mackerel), ground flaxseed, flax oil and walnuts.
- Trans fat. Here we are on the other side of the equation: the less you eat of this, the better. Do your best to avoid trans fat from synthetic – processed – sources. Avoiding it altogether is very hard to do, given that trans fat is present in meat and dairy foods. The American Heart Association strongly recommends limiting trans fat to under 1 percent of your total daily calorie intake, or less than 2 grams per day. Just hold on to the thought that you want to avoid it whenever you can. Trans fat shows up in snack foods and prepared desserts, margarine, snack cookies and cakes (all the tasty little guilty treats). They are naturally present in meat and dairy products.
- Saturated fat. This category should take up no more than 10 percent of your total daily calories. Under 7 percent is even better for your heart, according to current research. This means about 22 to 15 grams per day. Where do we find saturated fat? In just about everything we crave: cheese, pizza, grain-based desserts, and animal products such as sausage, hot dogs, bacon, ribs and chicken dishes. And then there’s lard and butter, too, and tropical oils, including palm and coconut.
- Cholesterol. As a basic guideline, less than 300 milligrams a day; less than 200 if you’re at risk of cardiovascular disease. The typical sources include eggs and egg dishes, beef dishes, hamburger and chicken dishes, seafood, dairy products, butter and lard.
- Read food labels and lists of ingredients carefully; avoid products that list partially hydrogenated vegetable oil among its first ingredients.
- Use olive oil in marinades and salad dressings.
- Use canola oil when baking.
- Saute in olive oil instead of butter when possible.
- Sprinkle slivered nuts or sunflower seeds instead of bacon bits over salads.
- Add slices of avocado, rather than cheese, to a sandwich.
- Look for non-hydrogenated peanut butter and other nut butter spreads. Try them on celery, with apples, or on whole-grain toast.
- Replace chips and processed crackers with small amounts of nuts. Unsalted peanuts, almonds, walnuts and pistachios are all good options. Just eat small portions.
- Prepare fish such as salmon and mackerel twice a week, instead of meat. And limit the portions to about 4 ounces of cooked seafood per serving.