A person who is phobic has a higher than normal anxiety about a particular thing. Unfortunately, we live in a fat phobic society. We are bombarded with messages telling us to eat a low fat diet. If you are not trying to follow a low fat regimen, you probably at least feel guilty as you lather your baked spud with butter plus sour cream, while enjoying your garlic toast.
The typical Canadian diet is higher in fat (38 per cent) than the so-called ideal of 30 per cent. However, who is reducing fat intake? It is often those who are already well under the 30 per cent recommendation and should not cut back any further.
Think about it. Even a low-fat diet that provides 30 per cent of your energy (or less) from fat can include some high fat foods. Your higher fat choices are simply balanced with some “no fat” selections. For example, a cheese sandwich may contribute fat from the cheese, but you will not find an inkling of fat in the lettuce, tomato, mustard or bread! The same goes for dessert. Sure cheesecake is loaded with fat, but unless you eat the cake as a meal, it may be an okay choice. Consider how many of your dinner selections before dessert were low fat.
Fat phobia was evident from a Chatelaine Magazine survey conducted in 1994 that included a cross section of Canadians. Of the 900 people surveyed, 98 per cent felt it was important to reduce dietary fat. Surprisingly, 20 per cent of respondents thought it would be ideal to "eliminate dietary fat" altogether. But wait a minute, fat is an essential nutrient, just like carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, minerals and water!
People forget (or do not know) that dietary fat is essential. The body needs it to absorb fat-soluble vitamins, to produce certain hormones, to line the body’s nerve cells, to insulate the internal organs and to form new cell walls. There are numerous reasons why we need dietary fat.
Fat also adds to the aroma, hence the flavor, of food. The sense of fullness or satiety after a meal is in part triggered by eating some fat. Compare the satisfaction from a low fat stir-fry meal to a steak sandwich. If you always eat ultra low fat cuisine, you will likely feel hungry every few hours!
When you try to follow a low fat regime, you might avoid groups of foods like dairy or meat. The result could be a diet lacking in key nutrients like calcium, iron, zinc and protein. In the extreme scenario, a person who only eats low fat may end up preoccupied with food and possibly even suffer from an eating disorder - all in an effort to reduce dietary fat!
An interesting finding from the Chatelaine survey was that respondents were not always clear about the sources of dietary fat. When ranking a hamburger, chicken nuggets, pizza, a hot dog and a fish burger, the fish burger was listed as the lowest fat choice. In fact, at 23 grams of fat, it has almost twice the fat as the hot dog (13 grams) or hamburger (12 grams).
The rating of some breakfast foods for fat content was another eye-opener. The survey found that 65 per cent of respondents ranked pancakes with bacon (9 grams of fat) as the highest fat meal over granola (13 grams) or a large bran muffin (16 grams).
One conclusion from the Chatelaine study was that people may be cautious of the white fat around a steak or the sour cream on potatoes, but they overlook the "hidden" fats. These may be added in cooking, in food preparation or within foods, like cookies, muffins and granola.
There is obviously a need for better consumer education to translate the guideline of "30 per cent calories from fat" into actual numbers linked to specific foods. For someone who is fat phobic, a 30 per cent fat diet may actually allow for an increase in fat.
Typically, a diet of 30 per cent fat includes some lean meat, fish and poultry, along with small amounts of fats such as mayonnaise, margarine, butter and salad dressing. Obviously, the more calories you need, the more servings you can include from fat sources.
The confusion about dietary fat includes many groups. As a dietitian working with Olympic athletes, it is not uncommon for me to hear an athlete boast about efforts to reduce dietary fat by switching from butter to margarine. The athlete is surprised to learn that the switch is in vain, since margarine has exactly the same amount of fat as butter. The only difference is in the type of fat. Even olive oil is 100 per cent fat. Similarly, many Olympians may be reluctant to load up their bagel with jam for fear of adding fat, when jams and jellies are 100 per cent carbohydrate!
Food should be something that gives us pleasure. We need not be worrying about every mouthful and the harm it might do. The important thing to remember is to choose a variety of foods and use all foods in moderation. Follow Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy Eating. You will have a good diet with proper amounts of fat and plenty of opportunity to eat foods you enjoy.