The Facts About Fats

Twenty-five years ago we all got the message – fat is bad.  Food manufacturers offered new, low-fat items, we started eating leaner cuts of meat, butter, eggs, nuts and avocados were practically relegated to the dust bin. And we all got fatter! Unfortunately, the facts about fats is not so simple. Some fat is bad, some is actually good, and lots of fat falls somewhere in between. This entry is excerpted from my book, The New Contented Heart Cookbook – Recipes for a Healthy Heart.

Not all fats are created equal. While all fats have calories, some kinds of fat are better for heart health than other kinds of fat.

Trans – Fats: Trans-fats started out as a food industry solution to the problem of fatty foods going rancid. The process of hydrogenation rendered less stable fats more stable, thus increasing their shelf life.   However, while trans-fats were good for the food industry, they weren’t so good for your arteries. Trans-fats raise both your total cholesterol level, and your LDL (bad cholesterol) level. AVOID all artificially produced trans-fats. Don’t trust the “Trans-Fat Free” statement on the label! Any product that has less than 0.5g of trans-fats per serving may be listed as trans-fat free. Instead, read the ingredient label. If you see the words, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated, chose a different product. Trans-fats are most commonly found in commercially prepared baked goods, shortening and margarine.

Saturated Fats: Saturated fats have a direct relationship to heart disease. The more saturated fats you ingest, the greater your risk of heart disease. Saturated fats include all animal fats and some vegetable fats (coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil). Unfortunately, in order to reduce the trans-fats in food products, manufacturers are increasing the amount of saturated fat in many goods, so it is important to read product labels to avoid unwanted saturated fats. Like trans-fats, saturated fats raise both your total cholesterol and LDL levels.

Polyunsaturated Fats: Polyunsaturated fats can be found in plants and some animal products. For example, Omega-3 fats, found in salmon and flaxseed, are polyunsaturated fats. Other good sources of polyunsaturated fats are safflower, corn, sunflower, sesame, and soybean oils. They help lower both total cholesterol and LDL levels.

Monounsaturated Fats: Monounsaturated fats are best for heart health. Monounsaturated fats, like those found in olive, peanut and canola oils, form the fat “backbone” of the heart healthy Mediterranean diet. Monounsaturated fats will not only help lower your total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels, they may also help increase HDL (good cholesterol) levels.  HDL helps “scour” the arteries and protects them from oxidation, thus reducing heart disease risk.

Because peanut oil is monounsaturated, peanut butter falls into this category. However, all peanut butters that are stable in the cupboard have had some sort of hydrogenation. All-natural peanut butters must be refrigerated to reduce rancidity.

Essential fatty acids: Two new fats, Omega 3 and Omega 6 have recently entered the American lexicon. Both are important for heart health, but the greatest need is to increase the amounts of Omega 3 fatty acids in our diet. There are three basic kinds of Omega 3 fatty acids. One kind can be found in plants like flaxseed, walnuts, soy and leafy greens. The other two kinds of Omega 3 fatty acids are found in cold water fish like salmon and tuna.

Omega 6 fatty acids are also essential. However, our modern diet includes plenty of Omega 6 fatty acids due to food processing. The primary sources of Omega 6 fatty acids are corn and safflower oils, found in most of the packaged foods we eat.

The ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 is of great importance. Most scientists recommend a ratio of 3 or 4 to 1. What can you do? Eat fewer processed products, use olive, canola and walnut oil instead of corn, safflower and vegetable oil, and choose a supplement that is primarily Omega 3 fatty acids, not Omega 6 fatty acids.

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About the Author

Renee Pottle, an author and heart-healthy educator, loves to explore and write about the Mediterranean Diet. She blogs at SeedToPantry.com and HestiasKitchen.com.

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