Nutrition Spotlight: The Fat Debate
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. With February being designated as American Heart Month, it is a great time to think about how we can improve our own heart health.
Many factors contribute to heart disease risk, such as family history, smoking, physical inactivity, and diet. Although the word 'fat' historically has a bad connotation, many dietary fats are known to greatly improve our health, particularly our heart health.
During the 1990's a low-fat diet craze put many fat-free and low-fat products on our grocery store shelves. Over time, however, we've learned that fats are needed to give the body energy, grow cells, protect organs and maintain body temperature, as well as produce hormones and allow your body to absorb specific nutrients. So in short, our bodies need fat to function properly. However, we often face a dilemma of what fats to eat, what fats not to eat, and how to include the right fats in our diet on a regular basis.
Types of Fat:
Eat less of...
Saturated fat is found mainly in high-fat animal products, such as red meat, organ meats, whole milk, cheese, sour cream, and ice cream. Saturated fat is known to raise LDL cholesterol; however, research is now finding that the LDL cholesterol that saturated fat creates is large and buoyant. These types of LDL cholesterol particles are not as harmful as the small and dense particles formed from sugar in the diet. (Siri-Tarino P, Sun Q, Hu F, Krauss R. Saturated Fat, carbohydrate, and cardiovascular disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010;91:502-9.)
Trans fat is man-made and is found in some packaged foods like cookies, crackers, pastries, margarine, and shortening and also in fried foods, such as French fries and doughnuts. Trans fat is produced by adding hydrogen atoms to liquid fats, making them solid at room temperature and therefore longer shelf-stable. Studies have shown that trans fats not only raise LDL cholesterol, but also lower HDL cholesterol ('good' cholesterol). Although trans fats are now listed on food labels, it is still very important to read the ingredients listed on foods, as amounts less than 0.5 grams per serving can legally still be printed as 'zero' on the label. If 'hydrogenated oil' or 'partially hydrogenated oil' is listed in the ingredients, limit consumption of that particular food.
Eat more of...
Monounsaturated fats are shown to raise HDL and lower LDL cholesterol. The best sources of monounsaturated fat are olive oil, avocados, and nuts (especially almonds, cashews, and peanuts).
Polyunsaturated fats have been shown to lower LDL cholesterol. The main sources are safflower, corn, sunflower, and cottonseed oils.
Omega 3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat and they play an especially important role in heart health. Research has shown that omega 3 fats decrease the risk of arrhythmias, which can lead to sudden cardiac death, decrease triglyceride levels, lower blood pressure, and reduce the buildup of plaque on artery walls. The best sources of omega 3 fats are salmon, trout, flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, walnuts, and walnut oil.
Tips for Choosing the Best Types of Fats
- Add avocado slices to a sandwich instead of cheese.
- Snack on a mixture of almonds and dried fruit instead of chips or crackers.
- Sprinkle nuts, like almonds or pine nuts, on a salad.
- Use olive oil in cooking instead of butter or margarine.
- Choose fish, such as salmon, once or twice a week for dinner instead of meat or poultry.
Although mono- and polyunsaturated fats are important to include in a heart-healthy diet, remember that all fats are still high in calories. Fats contain 9 calories per gram, whereas protein and carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram. Include healthy fats in your eating plan, but know what counts as one serving (approximately equal to 5 grams of fat and 45 calories):
- 1/8 of an avocado
- 1 teaspoon of oil
- 8 large olives
- ½ ounce of nuts (~ 1 tablespoon)
Including healthy fats in your meals, in moderation, can improve your heart health. Aim to include two servings of monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats (especially omega 3 fatty acids) per day. Strive for the majority of fat that you consume to be polyunsaturated and monounsaturated, while reducing the amount of saturated and trans fats. Remember to balance your meals and snacks with lower-fat choices, such as fruits and vegetables.
Avocado and Salmon Bruschetta
- 4 slices whole-grain bread
- 1 tablespoon prepared pesto
- 1 avocado
- 1/2-cup shredded lettuce or sprouts (optional)
- 2-3 oz. smoked salmon
- Freshly-ground pepper
Toast bread. Spread pesto on one side of each slice. Pit, peel, and thinly slice avocado. Arrange avocado on bread slices; then cut each slice of bread into quarters. Top with shredded lettuce or sprouts (optional), and smoked salmon. Sprinkle with pepper.
Cherry Trail Mix
- 1/2 cup dried cherries
- 1/2 cup raisins
- 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
- 1/2 cup almonds
- 1/4 cup sunflower seeds
Mix all ingredients together in large bowl. Divide mixture evenly in 1/4-cup portions and place each into a separate small plastic bag or container to use for quick and easy snacks.