Hidden fats in everyday food

Last updated: August 2011

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's food pyramid is a thing of the past, and its replacement, a plate logo, is missing something: fats. But avoiding certain fats can be hard, because some hide where you least expect them. See Fat counts in supermarket foods.

Fat is also good at hiding in chain restaurants, leading you to be bad even when you're trying to be good. It might be no surprise that Chili's rib-eye steak has 116 grams of fat, nearly twice the recommended daily limit. But what about Burger King's healthful-sounding Tendercrisp Garden Salad with Ken's Creamy Caesar dressing? Forty-three grams of fat, more than the famous Whopper. An innocent-looking Dunkin' Donuts tuna croissant clocks in at 40 grams. And a 32-ounce Dunkin' Donuts Coffee Coolata packs 46 grams, twice as much as a glazed cake doughnut.

Too much fat is bad for your heart and waistline. Eating a diet low in saturated fat with plenty of vegetables and living an active life has been linked to a decreased risk of Alzheimer's disease and cognitive decline, according to recent research. Saturated fats have been associated with an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

What you can do

Read the Nutrition Facts and ingredient labels, and don't make assumptions. We found that some pretzels and popcorn have far more fat than others, that red pasta sauce might have almost as much fat as Alfredo, and that a handful of banana chips might have more fat than three Oreo cookies.

And keep an eye out for unhealthful oils in the ingredients: palm oil, coconut oil, palm kernel oil, and partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.

Other ways to limit fats:

  • For breakfast, top whole-grain bread with peanut butter and sliced bananas, or try oat-based, low-fat cereals like Cheerios with a sprinkle of granola for extra crunch instead of bacon and eggs.
  • Beware of the words "crispy," "creamy," and "tempura," synonyms for relatively high fat content.
  • Make your own chips. Slice parsnips or turnips into thin rounds; toss them with olive oil, salt, and pepper; and bake in a single layer on a cookie sheet.
  • Avoid salads served in deep-fried shells or topped with cheese, creamy dressing, croutons, or breaded, fried chicken.
  • Satisfy your sweet tooth with a bowl of berries topped with a small scoop of ice cream.
  • Make your own sauce by simmering canned tomatoes with chopped onion, garlic, a little olive oil, and fresh herbs. Freeze the leftover sauce so you can use it in a pinch.
  • If you like specialty coffee drinks, order them with fat-free or low-fat milk.

Fat counts for supermarket foods

Illustration: Mckibillo

Fast facts about fats in food

Recommended daily values, when you eat a diet of 2,000 calories a day:

Total fat: Less than 65 grams.

Saturated fat: Less than 20 grams.

Trans fat: None, but aim for as little as possible. Foods containing trans fat might have partially hydrogenated oil listed among their ingredients.

Learning the lingo will help you decode labels. Just remember that all terms apply to one serving. Eat more, and the fat content can creep up—like those extra pounds over the years.

Fat free: Less than 0.5 grams of fat.

Low fat: Up to 3 grams of fat.

Trans-fat free: Less than 0.5 grams of trans fat.

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