So many options! So many opinions!
How do you know what is best?
People often refer to fat as a bad thing. Being overweight is called “being fat” and food high in calories is “fattening.” But fat itself is not the enemy. The problem is the type of fat and the amount you eat, especially when you eat too much of the “bad” ones. Fat is essential for good health but some types can increase your risk of heart and chronic diseases. It supplies vital fatty acids (Omega 3 & 6) and vitamins (A, D, E, and K) that the body cannot make on its own. These substances enable proper brain development, healthy skin and body functions and should preferably be ingested in foods. Be careful! The delicious taste, smell and tenderness it gives food when cooked, makes it easy to overeat it.
To get a better understanding, lets divide fat and oil into two main groups—the “good” unsaturated and the “bad” saturated fats. The good oils are both mono-unsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) and poly-unsaturated fatty acids (PUFA); they come from vegetable sources and are liquid at room temperature. The bad fats are saturated, which come from animal sources and are solid at room temperature, and trans-fats, man-made hydrogenated vegetable oils.
Each of the three distinctive types of fat has different effects on your health. Saturated and trans-fats raise blood cholesterol levels which then accumulates on the artery walls and can eventually restrict blood flow to the heart. They actually have a greater negative effect on your levels of cholesterol in the blood than the cholesterol in the food. Cholesterol comes exclusively from animal sources; plants do not have cholesterol at all. Foods such as beef, pork, poultry, egg yolks, milk, cream cheese and butter are all high in saturated fat and cholesterol. Many people wrongly assume that if the food is high in fat it must have cholesterol, but fatty vegetable sources like avocado, peanut butter and nuts have no cholesterol.
Based on the fact that animal-sourced saturated fats are not good for your health, many have switched to hydrogenated vegetable oils, which are high in trans-fats. Clinical studies have shown that gram-bygram, trans-fats are worse for your blood cholesterol level than saturated fat. The main sources of trans-fats are margarine, shortening and all of the processed foods that use them.
“The best way to know if the food has trans fat is by reading the ingredient list on the food label”
If hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is included in the ingredient list, there is trans-fat in the product regardless of the label saying “No (or) 0g trans-fats.” It can also be found in doughnuts and baked goods, including pie crust, cookies, crackers, pizza dough and pastries that use margarine and shortening, as well as in some peanut butter and creamy sauces and soups. The recommendation is to avoid it completely, if possible.
There are always exceptions to the rules. Coconut and palm oil are vegetable-sourced but are also saturated and solid at room temperature and fish oil is an unsaturated animal fat rich in Omega 3. Coconut oil is a healthy saturated fat because it mostly has Lauric Acid and about 48% of the fatty acids in coconut oil are medium chain fatty acids (MCFA). This kind of oil is absorbed and transported directly to the liver where it is burned for energy instead of stored as fat. MCFAs help reduce LDL (bad blood cholesterol) and cholesterol synthesis by the liveras well as increase HDL (good blood cholesterol) and help reduce abdominal fat.
Poly-unsaturated fatty acids (PUFA’s) are found in vegetables as Omega 6 and in fish as Omega 3 and are essential because the body cannot make them so they must be consumed as food. Enough Omega 6 is consumed in most people diets because of their vegetable cooking oils, salad dressings and nuts intake. However, Omega 3, found mostly in cold-water fish and some nuts, is less often consumed in a typical diet. PUFA Omega 3 helps lower the risk of heart diseases and heart attacks, reduces inflammation in the blood vessels and joints, lowers the risk for an abnormal heart rhythm, reduces unhealthy fats in the bloodstream and slows down plaque build-up inside the blood vessels. It even provides some benefits against Depression, Dementia and Cancer; reduces symptoms of joint pain and stiffness in people with Rheumatoid Arthritis and may also boost the effectiveness of antiinflammatory drugs. The amount of Omega 3 in fish varies, but a weekly intake of 6-9oz of fatty fish like Salmon is enough to experience the health benefits. The best practice is to eat a variety of fish including Salmon 2 to 3 times a week.
To protect your health you need to pay attention not only to how much fat you eat but what kind of fat you are eating. Decreasing—not eliminating—and choosing the “good” fat is the key to your heart health and overall wellness.
By DR. IRIS I. MERCADO, EdD, CDN
Health Educator and Nutritionist/Dietitian