Fat is the enemy – that's the philosophy of many Americans who are trying to lose excess weight. While plenty of proven health risks can be tied to carrying extra pounds, not all fat is bad, experts say. In fact dietary fat is considered an essential nutrient, and some "good" types of fat actually deliver a myriad of health benefits – including aiding in weight control.

"Fat is necessary for many vital functions," says Susan Berkow, PhD, a member with the Institute of Food Technologists and an adjunct professor at George Mason University. "Fat aids in maintaining proper function of the nervous system, keeping our internal organs insulated, nourishing hair and nails, and providing the building blocks for many hormones. It is a good source of energy, among other functions."

With the holidays approaching, many people will struggle to sort food facts from fiction as they try to control the amount of fat in their diet. Berkow offers some insight into how you can separate fat from fiction this holiday season:

Know your fats

By now you've probably heard of trans fat, unsaturated fat and saturated fat. But do you know which ones you should avoid and which ones are OK in moderation? "Up to 30 percent of our daily calories should come from fat, with unsaturated fats making up the majority of that percentage," Berkow says. Unsaturated fats are the "good" fats, and you can find them in plant-based oils such as olive or canola oil, salmon, tuna and many nuts such as almonds and walnuts.

Saturated fats are also a natural fat, but can cause health risks if not eaten in moderation. You'll find saturated fats mostly in animal products, such as cheese and meat, but some plant oils, like coconut and palm, also contain saturated fats. Holiday foods, which are often loaded with butter, can be very high in saturated fats.

Trans fat is most often found in processed foods. Manufacturers produce it and place it in foods to provide long shelf life and good flavor. Unless a label states "no trans fats" expect to find them in processed foods like baked goods and crackers. Many state and local governments have passed laws requiring restaurants to eliminate trans fat from menu items. Trans fat has been linked to elevated LDL (bad) cholesterol that can lead to heart attack and stroke.

'Good' vs. 'bad' fats

The right kinds of fats, eaten in moderation, provide a number of health benefits, and can even contribute to weight control by helping you feel full longer. Fat digests more slowly than other types of food and are satisfying, adding texture, taste and mouth feel. , So eating a modest portion of saturated fat at a meal can help you feel full, and avoid unhealthy snacking, until the next meal.

In general, people should look for sources of unsaturated fat that offer other nutritional benefits as such as those that contain omega-3 or omega-6 fattty acids.  Minimize your intake of saturated fats and avoid trans fats as much as possible.

Federal dietary guidelines recommend about 65 grams of fat per day in a 2,000 calorie-per-day diet. If a food label says 20 percent daily value for fat, it means you will consume about 13 grams of fat in a single serving. Look for foods that constitute no more than 5 to 15 percent of your daily recommended fat intake. If you do indulge in a higher fat food at one meal, balance it with lower fat choices throughout the day.

"To minimize bad fat in holiday foods, choose low-fat or fat-free dairy products, read labels and keep total per-serving to less than 5 to 15 percent of the daily value," Berkow advises. "Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables with low-fat dips such as low-fat yogurt or humus. Dip your whole-grain bread in olive oil seasoned with garlic or basil, rather than in butter. Try new vegetables such as jicama, which is great for dipping. Bake with margarine rather than butter."

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