Fat is essential for proper growth and development. It's a key component of our neurological system and critical for cell development and hormone production. Fat is needed for healthy skin and hair; it provides a source of stored energy and insulation; and it allows us to absorb vitamins A, D, E and K. So when we think about eating low fat, we must bear in mind that, unlike sugar, fat adds nutritional value to our diet. The problem is that we generally eat too much fat or too much of the "wrong" kind of fat.
So what are we talking about when we refer to a low fat diet? Well, anything from 20–30 percent of your daily calorie intake. If you eat around 2,000 calories a day, then you would be looking at 400–600 calories from fat. This translates as about 45 grams and 66 grams of fat respectively, since each gram of fat is worth nine calories (in contrast, one gram of protein or carbohydrate is worth four calories). Ideally you should limit your intake of saturated fat to less than 10 percent of daily calories, so no more than 200 calories, or less than 20 grams of saturated fat.
Can I Still Eat a Cheeseburger and Fries?A one-ounce slice of cheddar cheese has 9.3 grams of fat and 5.9 grams of saturated fat. This would account for about 14 percent of your daily fat limit, although you would be close to one-third of your daily limit of saturated fat.
Four ounces of 80/20 ground beef would amount to 23 grams of fat and nine grams of saturated fat, which would translate as 35 percent and 45 percent of your daily totals of fat and saturated fat.
Let's take a small serving of fast-food fries: total fat would be 11 grams and saturated fat 1.5 grams, accounting for 17 percent and 8 percent of daily value.
You can see how one modest-sized meal of cheeseburger and fries can push you close to your daily limits if your goal is to keep your fat intake to 20 percent of daily calories. Does this mean you can never eat a cheeseburger and fries? Not necessarily, but it should be an occasional indulgence.
How About Some Ice Cream?A half-cup of premium vanilla ice cream has 18 grams of fat and 11 grams of saturated fat—or 28 percent and 55 percent of daily values. If you keep to the half-cup serving and eat ice cream only once in a while, you can budget your fat calories accordingly.
Trimming the FatChoose lean sources of animal protein and aim to eat a more plant-based diet overall. Chicken is naturally lean (especially skinless chicken breasts) and some cuts of pork—especially pork tenderloin—can be very lean, too. You don't have to select ground chuck for your hamburgers. Try ground beef that's 90 or 95 percent lean (10 or 15 percent fat). Be aware that the lean/fat ratio refers to product weight and not the percentage of calories from fat. Don't make meat the center of your meal. This is where MyPlate is useful. This government-created visual icon suggests that protein (it doesn't specify meat) should make up no more than one-fourth of your plate. If we abided by this rule, we would significantly cut our intake of fat at mealtimes. Filling the rest of your plate with whole grains and vegetables would dramatically shape the way we eat, and would allow us to eat low fat without actually dieting, so long as were careful about eating snacks and sweet treats. So when naysayers argue that eating low fat is about deprivation and constant hunger, I would argue that they're wrong. Here's what one day's menu could look like:
- Breakfast: 1 packet of instant oatmeal made with nonfat milk topped with half a sliced banana.
- Snack: medium apple or pear sliced, half a cup of nonfat Greek yogurt for dipping.
- Lunch: Cup of broth-based soup; sliced low-sodium deli ham or turkey, with romaine, sliced tomatoes, roasted red peppers, and some mustard or reduced-fat mayo on wholegrain bread, with baby carrots on the side.
- Afternoon snack: tea or coffee and a small cookie treat; or an ounce of heart-healthy nuts.
- Dinner: Cod with Lentils Or Pork with White Beans and Tomatoes with some whole grain rice. Or Middle Eastern Chicken with creamy polenta.