24 Jul

The good, the bad and the ugly fat facts

By Carolyn O’Neil,

Olive oil in a cupIf you enjoy a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil on a crisp green salad or can’t wait to savor a salmon steak hot off the grill, then you are part of a happy and healthy nationwide nutrition trend. According to results of the 2007 Food & Health Survey recently released by the International Food Information Council, 72 percent of Americans indicated that they are concerned with both the amount and types of fats they consume, compared with 66 percent last year.

So, fat isn’t just associated with being “fattening” anymore. More people are learning that some fats can be good for their health.

For instance, the polyunsaturated and mono-unsaturated fatty acids in foods such as salmon, walnuts, olive oil and canola oil are linked to preventing heart disease, certain cancers and even depression and Alzheimer’s disease.

Meanwhile, other fats are in the headlines because of their role in causing disease. Saturated fats found in meats and dairy foods should be limited to 10 percent of total calories because they can raise blood cholesterol levels, increasing your risk of heart disease. And beware the Darth Vader of the food world — trans fats — now on the nutrition hit list of ingredients to avoid entirely if you can.

If you find this good-fat-vs.-bad-fat information hard to digest, you’re not alone.

Many Americans are a bit foggy on the dietary details. The food council survey found that while 75 percent of people correctly said they should be eating less trans fat and saturated fats, a troubling 42 percent incorrectly thought they were supposed to eat less polyunsaturated fat, too.

To help you identify the fats to hire or fire from your diet, here are some fat facts. Please note that all types of fat provide the same 9 calories per gram. So while olive oil may be good for your heart and bacon fat may be bad, either can make you fat if you eat too much.

Omega-3 fats, Mono-unsaturated fats, Polyunsaturated fats, Saturated fats, Trans fats, here are fat résumés, so you can decide which is best for the job:


Omega-3 fats
Though actually in the polyunsaturated category, generally considered to be in a class by themselves. Work hard at reducing heart disease, cancer, swollen joints, even may help eczema and depression. Found on land and sea in the company of fish, shellfish, flaxseed, walnuts and canola and liquid soybean oil. Has centuries of experience in the Mediterranean keeping generations healthy.

Prime performance: Lowers bad cholesterol, raises good cholesterol.

Mono-unsaturated fats
Long-term experience lowering bad fats and raising good fats in the blood. Also may help manage blood sugar levels. Monos hold prominent positions in olives, olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, cashews, almonds, peanuts and avocados. Commonly employed in the Mediterranean, where olive oil is the most popular dietary fat. Seeking more opportunities to improve public health worldwide.

Prime performance: Lowers bad cholesterol, raises good cholesterol.

Polyunsaturated fats
Although still recognized as a leader in their field for lowering cholesterol levels, demoted several years ago to a less prominent position behind omega-3 fats and monos. Though polys provide healthy fatty acids, best when added to the diet in a subordinate position to omega-3s and monos. Chief fat in walnuts, flaxseed, whole grains and vegetable oils, including canola, safflower, soybean and corn oils. By far, the most often employed fat in the American diet.

Prime performance: Lowers bad cholesterol, raises good cholesterol.

Saturated fats
Have held the same low-level position for decades. Known to clog arteries and suspected of other underhanded dealings affecting heart health. Chief fat in animal foods — fatty beef, pork, lamb, butter, cream, ice cream and other full-fat dairy products. Plays the heavy but adds lots of flavor to foods. Also, employed in the tropics as the fat found in coconut and palm oils. Acceptable in small doses; should make up only 10 percent of your total intake.

Prime performance: Raises bad cholesterol.

Trans fats
Ignored for decades. Now known to be really bad news. Long-term experience raising artery-clogging bad cholesterol in the blood. Tricky “trans” position created when otherwise healthy liquid oils are processed into solid vegetable shortening, such as stick margarines. Used in many packaged foods — crackers, cakes, cookies, pastries, cereals, soups and salad dressings. Often goes by the name “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.”

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