When I talk to my patients about ways to protect their heart, and general health by eating more good fats and avoiding the bad fats – they’re often confused. One patient said, “Aren’t they all bad?” You can’t blame his response though, for the last few decades, “fat” in the diet has been blamed for everything from heart disease to cancer to many other conditions in-between.
In the last several years though, health researchers have come to learn that all fats aren’t created equal. Not all are bad and, some are even good and necessary for your good health. So I’d like to try and simplify what you should know about good and bad fats and how much fat you really should be eating per day.
Dietary Fat – What To Eat, What To Avoid
Early in January 2014, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics published a paper stating that your dietary intake of fat should be between 20% and 30% of your total calorie intake. Basically, you should up your consumption of Omega-3 fats, reduce saturated fats and avoid trans fats. So, let’s look at these 3 types of fats.
Trans fats: There’s been a lot of news about these in the last 2 months. Late in 2013, the news came out that the FDA is effectively banning the use of these fats in commercially manufactured foods and restaurant foods. They did this by labeling them “non-GRAS” – no longer Generally Recognized as Safe. What this means is that no food manufacturer or commercial food preparer can use “partially hydrogenated oils” in their recipes.
Typically, PHOs make up a large amount of trans fats in American commercial foods. They’re found in a number of packaged foods that you may be eating everyday including things like powdered and liquid coffee creamers, snack foods, certain margarines, frozen dessert toppings, etc.
Yet, you could be fooled by their “0” trans fats listing on their label but when you read the list of ingredients you may see “partially hydrogenated soybean (or whichever type) oil”. You see, food manufacturers have been legally able to list a 0 trans-fat level on labels if the food contains less than a certain percentage of trans fat per serving. The problem arises when you consume several servings a day – your trans-fat intake could be significant.
But, if trans fats are just made from vegetable oils, what’s the problem? Well, the truly bad news about trans fats is that they can raise levels of “bad” cholesterol and cause inflammation throughout your cardiovascular system. Inflammation in your arteries sets the stage for developing dangerous plaques that can lead to a sudden fatal heart attack.
Researchers believe that getting rid of trans fats in commercial foods could save thousands of lives a year from heart attacks. With the new FDA ruling, foods won’t be able to contain PHO’s at all. Until their use is completely removed from the food supply, continue to read labels – mainly the ingredients. If “partially hydrogenated oils” appears on the list, avoid the food. Ask at your favorite restaurant as well about ingredients.
Saturated Fats: These can be both animal and vegetable-based like beef, pork, etc., cheese, cream, tallow, lard, pure butter, or coconut, cottonseed, palm kernel, and even chocolate. They often have as much controversy around them as trans fats but less deservedly. For years, they’ve been thought to raise “bad” cholesterol which, in turn, can lead to heart disease.
They’ve also been thought to contribute to certain diseases like breast, ovarian, colon, and prostate cancer, as well as negatively impact bone density – especially in men. Yet, it may be the case that it’s not actually the saturated fat in the diet that contributes to these diseases but obesity, in general, that produces chemicals (cytokines) that create dangerous inflammation throughout the body. The American diet has become overloaded with sugar which promotes obesity.
Certain saturated fats like coconut oil and chocolate are actually good for you. Coconut oil is a medium chain triglyceride which your body uses for immediate energy. It can also help mobilize other fat stores to release fat for energy and seems to have a positive effect on the thyroid which governs metabolism. Chocolate – we’ve come to learn – is an excellent antioxidant, source of magnesium and fiber, and as long as it’s not also loaded with sugar, it can be a very heart healthy food. As a cardiologist, I feel that natural, saturated fat containing foods, like grass fed beef, salmon, etc., in moderation, can be very healthy for you. They help you manufacture and regulate hormones that help your body perform numerous critical functions.
Omega Fats: These are the 3, 6, 7 and 9s which all have their place in your dietary intake of fat, perhaps most importantly Omega-3’s. Here’s a quick breakdown of them.
Omega 3: Excellent antioxidant that is very beneficial for heart and brain as well as preserving the integrity of your DNA. They contain both EPA and DHA fatty acids and fight inflammation and help keep arteries throughout the entire body (including the brain) elastic and plaque free. These are found in oily fish (salmon, mackerel, and tuna), nuts, flaxseed oil, and canola oil. The ratio between these and Omega 6’s should be close to equal (1:1).
Omega 6: These are basically “salad oil” fats like corn, safflower, sunflower, soybean, etc. Too much of these, research has recently shown, may also contribute to inflammation, so watch the ration and don’t overload on them.
Omega 7: The last few years has revealed more about this fat. Present in macadamia nuts, seabuckthorn, Omega-7’s, palm oil, a little in dairy and meats as well. It is an anti-inflammatory that has been shown in lab tests to reduce bad cholesterol as well as, or better than prescription statin drugs, increase liver health, boost insulin sensitivity and promote weight loss.
Omega 9: These are omegas contained in olive, grapeseed, canola, avocado as well as nuts, eggs and poultry. They help fight heart disease by increasing “good” HDL cholesterol as well as improve insulin sensitivity, thereby fighting diabetes.
As I recommend to my patients, and the recent research findings out of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics confirm, it’s best to portion your fat intake between 20% and 30% of your total calorie intake. I think 20% varied Omega fats (light on the 6’s), about 10% saturated fats, and 0 trans fats is a good balance to help fight cardiovascular disease as well as keep your brain and your hormones happy.
Ron Blankstein, M.D.