News & Perspectives

All Fats Are Not Created Equal

Are you confused about all the different fats and oils crowding the supermarket shelves? You’re not alone. A recent survey by the Nutrition Information Center found that people are especially perplexed about which fats to eat--or avoid--for a long, healthy life.

But read on. Findings from the ongoing Nurses’ Health Study at Harvard confirm that a low-fat diet--along with lifestyle factors such as regular exercise--can cut heart disease risk by up to 80%. What’s more, eating the right kinds of fats may be vitally important to achieving good health.

How low do I have to go?

Restricting fats to around 30% of total calories--or about 67 grams, or 6 tablespoons, of fat or oil daily for the average 2,000-calorie-a-day diet--seems a reasonable goal. With all the hidden fats in many snack and convenience foods, most Americans get far more than that. Choosing nonfat or low-fat milk, cheese, and dairy can help you meet this objective.

Is it okay to eat red meat?

Saturated fats--the kinds found in animal products like meats, butter, and cheese--can hike "bad" LDL cholesterol, raising the risk of heart disease and stroke. If you eat red meat, limit portions to 3 ounces (about the size of your palm) once a day. You could also opt for fish at least twice a week instead.

What’s so healthy about fish?

Studies show that the oils in fish, called omega-3s, can dramatically reduce the risk of having a fatal heart attack. Omega-3s, abundant in oily fish such as salmon and sardines, can also reduce irregular heartbeats and lessen inflammation, which scientists now suspect may be an early step in hardening of the arteries.

What about flaxseed oil?

Like fish, this nutty-tasting oil contains heart-healthy omega-3s. Interestingly, canola, walnut, and soybean oils also contain some omega-3s. Consuming these fats may be one reason for the low risk of heart attacks in those who eat a vegetable-rich Mediterranean diet (Circulation, 2/16/99). Flaxseed oil is delicious in salad dressings; for a great recipe, visit the Healing Kitchen.

There are so many oils to choose from: Corn, olive, peanut. Which is best?

Olive, canola, and peanut oils, high in monounsaturated fats, are heart-healthy choices. Cut back on safflower, sunflower, corn, soybean, and cottonseed oils, all rich in polyunsaturated fats called omega-6s. It’s not that these oils are bad per se. Rather, some practitioners suspect that baked goods and packaged foods overload us with omega-6s, at the expense of omega-3s, setting the stage for heart disease and other ills. Steer clear of coconut and palm oils; though they come from plants, their fat is highly saturated.

Is margarine better than butter?

While many nutritionists still recommend margarine as a healthier alternative to butter, some nutritionally-oriented doctors caution against using margarines and other spreads. "Natural is always better," says Joseph Lamb, M.D., of American WholeHealth and the University of Virginia. "I would recommend butter over margarine."

Though margarine is made from plant oils and is cholesterol free, it undergoes a chemical process called hydrogenation to turn it into solid or spreadable forms with a long shelf life. As a result, harmful substances called "trans fats" are formed, and these may be the worst fats of all. Not only do trans fats raise "bad" LDL cholesterol, like the saturated fats in butter; they can also actually lower "good" HDL cholesterol.

Are some types of margarine better than others?

Softer margarines are better because they contain less trans fats. There are now brands of  newer "heart healthy" margarines that contain none of these fats. In one major study, people who used soft tub or liquid margarines had lower cholesterol than those who ate stick margarine or butter. Those who ate unprocessed vegetable oils had the lowest cholesterol (New England Journal of Medicine, 6/24/99).

Do you recommend the new cholesterol-lowering margarines, Benecol and Take Control?

If you have high cholesterol, these new FDA-approved spreads may be a good alternative to butter or regular margarine. They contain virtually no trans fats. Benecol, which has been sold in Finland for several years, contains cholesterol-lowering compounds called stanol esters that are derived from pine trees.

Among Finnish families who used a stanol ester spread for three months, levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol dropped by 12% in adults and 18% in children (Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology 2/00). Take Control contains soybean extracts called plant phytosterols that seem to offer similar benefits. You can cook with regular Benecol, but not with light Benecol or Take Control. The recommended dose is one to two tablespoons a day ( $4 to $5 for a week’s supply).

"The nice thing about these margarines is that they interfere with cholesterol absorption from foods, but as far as we know, they don’t interfere with the absorption of other nutrients, except perhaps for beta-carotene," says Philippe Szapary, M.D., of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Lamb cautions, however, that little is known about their long-term side effects.

Some final advice

Read the label carefully. Baked goods, cookies, snacks, and frozen foods are often loaded with unhealthy fats. The FDA recently required that companies list the amount of trans fats--found in hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils--on food labels. Major fast food franchises are beginning to eliminate trans-fats from their menu items. Look for products that are trans fat–free (less than 0.5 grams per serving). The fewer you get, the better.


Good Fats

Monounsaturated: Olive, canola, peanut oils; nuts (cashews, almonds, macadamias, pecans, pistachios); avocados.

Omega-3s: Flaxseed and fish oils, walnuts.

Bad Fats

Saturated: High-fat dairy products (whole milk, butter, cream, ice cream); lard, meats; palm and coconut oils.

Polyunsaturated: Safflower, sunflower, corn, cottonseed, soybean, sesame oils.

Worst Fats

Trans fats: Stick margarines; shortenings (e.g., Crisco); deep-fried foods; most processed snacks, cakes, and crackers.


Date Published: 09/06/2000
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