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The Skinny on Healthy Fats: Saturated vs. Unsaturated

A superfood-like status captured by coconut oil was swiftly stripped away after the American Heart Association (AHA) updated its guidelines [1], now recommending that people avoid the saturated fatty acids found in coconut oil.

The hubbub over coconut oil has re-ignited the debate over which fats are healthy and which fats should be heavily restricted in the diet to avoid heart disease. Coconut oil is the only plant-based food that contains saturated fat, a potential contributor to heart disease found in many popular foods of the American diet.

Fats are an “essential part of the micro-nutrients that we need,” points out Natalie Castro, chief wellness dietitian for corporate wellness at Baptist Health South Florida. But over the last few decades, all fats garnered a bad reputation, making way for “low fat” foods which, as it turned out, contained to many added sugars. That dependence on sugar has helped fuel the U.S. obesity epidemic, according to dietitians, physicians and a growing body of research.

“Unfortunately, fat got a bad wrap for many years as we went ‘low fat’ and guess what happened? We ballooned after that because all the food went from high fat to high sugar,” explains Ms. Castro. “Fats are going to have higher calories, but that’s OK if we portion them correctly and they’re part of a balanced meal.”

Limiting Saturated Fats
Saturated fat is the unhealthy fat, along with “trans fat” which raises your bad cholesterol and lowers your good cholesterol. Eating foods regularly that contain saturated fats raises the level of cholesterol in the blood. And as most health consumers know, high levels of LDL cholesterol, or the “bad” cholesterol, in your blood increases your risk of heart disease and stroke. If you have high cholesterol, you may develop fatty deposits in your blood vessels. And that can lead to the formation of plaque buildup in the arteries (atherosclerosis), or hardening of the arteries.

These fats are most often solid at room temperature. Foods like butter, palm and coconut oils, cheese, and red meat have high amounts of saturated fat. The primary source for trans fats in processed food is “partially hydrogenated oils.” Look for them on the ingredient list on food packages.

“We do need fats,” Ms Castro says. “We need healthy fats, carbohydrates and protein. That’s what makes a balanced and healthy meal.”

The American Heart Association has strict recommendations when it comes to saturated fates. The AHA says individuals should aim for for a diet that contains just 5 percent to 6 percent of calories from saturated fat. For example, if you need about 2,000 calories a day, no more than 120 of them should come from saturated fat. Saturated fats occur naturally in many foods, but mainly from animal sources, including meat and dairy products.

Additionally, many baked and fried foods can carry high levels of saturated fats. Some plant-based oils, such as palm oil, palm kernel oil and coconut oil, also contain
saturated fats.

“All of our cells are made up of a layer of fat and that helps make our bodies functional,” explains Ms. Castro. “It needs that right amount of fats. But if you load up on with the bad fats, which are going to be our saturated fats — things like fried foods and butter — those types of foods are going to be what more likely will clog our arteries — which is a buildup of that room-temperature solid fat.”

Unsaturated: The Healthy Fat
Both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are generally considered healthy. Good sources of monounsaturated fats are olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil, avocados, and most nuts, as well as high-oleic safflower and sunflower oils. Examples of polyunsaturated fats are corn oil, sunflower oil, and safflower. Eating polyunsaturated fats – instead of foods with saturated fats or highly refined carbohydrates — helps reduce LDL cholesterol. It can also lower triglycerides.

Omega-3 fatty acids are also considered good for heart health — but should be consumed as part of a healthy diet and not in pill supplements [2] that are commonly sold. Foods high in omega-3s include fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines, flaxseeds, walnuts, canola oil, and unhydrogenated soybean oil.

The best alternatives to foods high in saturated fats are dietary plans that include the following: