10/01/2013 08:04 EDT | Updated 12/01/2013 05:12 EST

Oils and Fats: The Big Fat Truth

Fats are on the forefront of our minds everyday. As new studies crop up, the choices can seem all the more confusing. But here's the skinny on fats as it stands today.

Not all fat is bad. In fact, including fat in the diet is necessary for healthy functioning. Fats and oils supply calories and essential fatty acids, and help us to absorb important fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E and K. Rather than trying to avoid fat altogether, consider the type and the amount.

A healthy eating pattern means that 20 to 35 per cent of your daily caloric intake should come from fat. For women, that equates to between 45 to 75 grams, and for men, somewhere between 60 to 105 grams. Fat in the diet comes from two sources; the "hidden" fats that are already in the foods we eat, and "added' fat such as salad dressings, spreads like butter or margarine, and cooking oil. Read the Nutrition Facts Panel on packaged foods to learn how much fat is in a product, limit the amount of fat you add to foods, and choose "healthier" fats.

Not all fats are created equal. Let's start with the less healthy fats. First we have the saturated fats. Saturated fats can be found in processed foods or foods made with hydrogenated oils such as lard. Saturated fats are also in hard margarines and animal products like butter, full-fat dairy and fatty meat, as well as some cooking oils such as coconut and palm oil. You should limit saturated fats. The unhealthiest fat is trans fats. Try to avoid trans fats altogether. Trans fats are found in commercially prepared baked foods like doughnuts and pastries, deep-fried foods, and many packaged cookies and crackers. Again, read the Nutrition Facts Panel on packaged foods to check for trans fats. And watch for the words "vegetable shortening" or 'partially hydrogenated oil' in ingredient lists; that tells you there are trans fats in the product. Both saturated and trans fats are linked to a higher risk of heart disease and stroke.

Now for the good fats! Healthy fats are unsaturated, and include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Canada's Food Guide recommends including a small amount -- 2 to 3 tablespoons -- of unsaturated fats in your diet daily. Choose soft, non-hydrogenated margarine, and when you cook with oil, stick with unsaturated varieties such as olive, canola, soybean or peanut oil. But remember -- when it comes to calories, fat is fat. Even healthy fat is relatively high in calories, so use sparingly. A little bit of healthy fat in the diet is good for your heart, but too much can be bad, because it can contribute to obesity and other factors related to heart disease.

Try these tips for getting the right amount, and the right type, of fat in your diet:

• Nuts are a great choice for a healthy snack because they contain fibre that helps with satiety (fullness) and they are a source of healthy (unsaturated) fats. Choose unsalted, and pre-portion nuts to single serving size--which is ¼ cup.

• Fish, especially cold water fish like salmon, mackerel, rainbow trout and sardines, is an excellent source of omega 3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat associated with heart health. Enjoy fish at least twice a week.

• When having meat, choose leaner cuts, trim visible fat and use a lower fat cooking method like broiling or grilling. Remove skin from chicken before cooking.

• Experiment with fresh herbs, lemon juice and vinegars to add flavour to potatoes and vegetables instead of butter, and when baking replace half the oil in the recipe with unsweetened applesauce.

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