The Truth About Fats

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For years, fat has been the bogeyman of bad health. Increasingly, however, research is showing that not all fats are equal. Some oils and fatty foods contain chemicals called essential fatty acids, which our bodies need for good health. How do you know the difference between good fats and bad fats? Read on!

“We’ve had such emphasis on eating low-fat foods,” says Patricia Kendall, PhD, RD, a professor at the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Office. “But all these new studies on oils and high-fat foods like nuts and cold-water fish show we’ve been ignoring how much we need certain fats.”

The two essential fatty acids most important to good health are omega-3 and omega-6. But we need these in the right balance in order to protect our hearts, joints, heartLDL cholesterol, and may increase your risk of heart disease. What’s more, these man-made fats are taken up by the body much easier than are omega-3s. So trans fatty acids not only harm your health, they also block the absorption of heart disease, you should still severely limit your saturated fats. But the newer research does explain why many health organizations no longer try to scare people away from “bad” foods.

For example, says Kendall, “for years, we’ve encouraged people to eat poultry instead of red meat because it is lower in . But when you look at the data on how these foods affect actual blood cholesterol levels, there isn’t that much difference.”

Rather than avoid meats, nutritionists today say you should simply eat more of the foods proven healthy in long-term studies: fish, vegetables, and fruit. Equally important, exercise, even you just walk briskly 30 minutes a day.

The Good Oils

The health message about oils has not changed and is very simple. Stick to olive oil or canola oil.

Olive oil is loaded with monounsaturated fatty acids, which do not raise blood cholesterol levels. It also is a good source of and polyphenols, which act as antioxidants, reducing the oxygen-related damage to the vascular system.

Canola oil, on the other hand, has loads of monounsaturated fatty acids in the form of oleic acid. This acid has been shown to reduce blood cholesterol levels, and it may lower LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol levels without changing “good” HDL levels. Also, canola oil is high in two essential polyunsaturated fatty acids that our bodies can’t make: alpha-linolenic acid and linolenic acid.

Alpha-linolenic acid appears to lower blood . It also may reduce platelet aggregation and increase blood clotting time, both of which are important to people at risk of heart disease and stroke.

Oils to Avoid

Simply put, avoid vegetable oils that are high in omega-6 fatty acids, such as regular vegetable oil, corn oil, safflower oil, soybean oil, and cottonseed oil.

Good Spreads

Until the recently, there really were no healthy spreads. Butter is too high in cholesterol for people who are at risk of heart disease; most margarine is made from trans fatty acids. In the 1980s, some manufacturers put out special, watered-down versions of spreads that had lower overall calorie content, but they tasted like it.

Then came spreads made from olive oil, wood pulp (Benecol) and soybeans (Take Control), which include chemicals that actually help your heart’s health.

“Spreads like Benecol, which are made from plant stanol esters, are lower in trans fat than regular margarine and have been shown to lower the risk of heart disease,” says Kendall. They especially help people taking statin drugs to lower their blood cholesterol levels. “But,” she adds, “they are more expensive, too, so if you are at risk of heart disease, they may be worth the price.”

Kendall suggests doing what the Italians do — put olive oil on your bread. Or, you could make what she calls “better butter.”

Blend one part olive or canola oil with one part butter,” Kendall says. It makes a softer spread and dilutes the cholesterol with monounsaturated fats.

Spreads to Avoid

Remember, traditional margarine is a trans fat nightmare. Check the ingredients list and avoid spreads that are made of “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oils.