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Facing the Fats: What's Best for a Heart-Healthy Diet

UW Health clinical nutritionist Kavita Poddar explains what are healthy fats and what fats to avoid for a heart-healthy dietMadison, Wisconsin - Coconut oil, organic butter, margarine, tropical oils! With all the hype around certain types of fats and oils, it can be hard to separate fads from facts, but if you know your facts, you can improve your diet and your heart health.


"When it comes to cooking, know your fats," says UW Health clinical nutritionist Kavita Poddar. "It’s important to understand what types of fat you should consume and avoid as part of a heart-healthy lifestyle."


Unhealthy Fats


Eating saturated fat and trans fat raises your blood LDL cholesterol level and can increase risk of heart disease and stroke.


Saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature and are found in animal products such as beef, lamb, pork, poultry with skin and dairy products such as butter, cream, cheese and other dairy products made from whole or 2% milk. Some plant foods including coconut oil, palm oil, palm kernel oil (often called tropical oils) and cocoa butter contain saturated fats.


Trans fats are created when hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. Another name for trans fats is “partially hydrogenated oils and/or hydrogenated oils." Trans fats are found in many fried foods and baked goods such as pastries, pizza dough, pie crust, cookies and crackers. Since 2006 the FDA has required trans fat content to be listed on the Nutrition Facts panel of packaged food.


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 "Always read labels to determine the amount of trans fats in packaged food by looking at the nutrition panel," Poddar says. "Remember, if a food package states 0 grams of trans fats, it might still have some trans fats. If the amount per serving of trans fat is less than 0.5 g, it can say 0 grams trans fat. If you consume more than one serving of the food, you may be getting some amount of trans fat in your diet.”


Make sure to check the ingredients list for “hydrogenated oils” or “partially hydrogenated oils,” and avoid products with these ingredients.


Healthy Fats


Both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated are heart-healthy fats that may help improve your blood cholesterol when you use them in place of saturated and trans fats. They're mainly found in:

  • Fish such as salmon, trout and herring
  • Avocados
  • Olives
  • Walnuts
  • Liquid vegetable oils such as soybean, corn, safflower, canola, olive and sunflower

Butter vs. Margarine


Butter has high amounts of saturated fats and some trans fats, and is not recommended as part of a heart-healthy diet. Margarine sticks also contain a high amount of trans fat in addition to saturated fat and are not a good choice either. The best choice is liquid margarine or soft margarine in a tub, which is made with less transfat.


"Read the labels and look for margarines that are low in saturated fats and free of trans fat," Poddar says.


She also suggests using oils, such as olive or canola, instead, because they are lower in saturated fat.


Crazy for Coconut Oil


The health benefits of coconut oil are touted all over the Internet and social media, but is this a good choice for you if you are concerned about heart health?


"No!" says Poddar. "Coconut oil is a popular fad right now, but coconut oil is very high in saturated fat."


"Ultimately, 'fat is fat,'" Poddar added. "There is no scientific evidence to suggest that coconut oil is better for you than other oils with lower amounts of saturated fats."


If you are concerned about maintaining or reducing your LDL cholesterol, you should avoid coconut oil. See our Facing the Fats chart for a breakdown of fat content in cooking oils and other foods.


How Much Fat Is OK?


To reduce your LDL cholesterol, limit the saturated fat in your diet to 7 percent or less calories from saturated fats or approximately 15 grams per day or less on a diet of 2000 calorie intake per day. Include some foods with mono-, poly-, and omega-3 unsaturated fats for flavor and satisfaction. These fats do not raise your LDL cholesterol, but they can be high in calories, so consume in moderation.


How to Get More Healthy Fats in Your Diet

  • Eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish and nuts.
  • Limit red meat and sugary foods and beverages.
  • Use naturally occurring, unhydrogenated vegetable oils such as canola, safflower, sunflower or olive oil often
  • Look for processed foods made without hydrogenated oils and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils or saturated fat.
  • Use soft margarine as a substitute for butter, and choose soft margarines (liquid or tub varieties) over harder stick forms.
  • Look for “0 g trans fat” on the Nutrition Facts label.
  • Limit doughnuts, cookies, crackers, muffins, pies and cakes and other processed foods that are high in trans fat.
  • Limit commercially fried foods and baked goods made with shortening or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Not only are these foods very high in fat, but can have high amounts of trans fat.
  • Limit fried fast food. Commercial shortening and deep-frying fats are made by hydrogenation and contain saturated fat and trans fat.


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Date Published: 03/21/2016

News tag(s):  wellnessnutritionheart healthyhealthy eating

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