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The Skinny on Fats

Understanding more about the fats in your body and in your diet.

It used to be so easy to understand the reigning dogma on healthy eating: Fat makes you fat. We knew which were "fattening" foods and tried to avoid them. But scientists kept probing to find out more on how diet affects health and, sure enough, things turned out to be not as simple as previously thought.


Today, most people know that saturated fat has been linked to higher levels of LDL cholesterol, and that high LDL levels seem to be linked to an increased risk for heart disease. Because people with diabetes are automatically in a higher-risk group when it comes to heart disease, most watch their saturated fat intake — skipping the butter, limiting red meat and cheeses, using skim milk, etc. However, our knowledge about dietary fat and its health effects has changed and expanded so much in recent years that all of us, regardless of specific disease risk, can benefit from knowing more about all the different kinds of fats we put into our mouths.

The Bad Fats

In the context of a typical American diet, too much saturated fat can raise total cholesterol levels, because it raises both the "bad" LDL and the "good" HDL cholesterol. It is generally believed that its negative effects outweigh its positive effects, which is why the number-one mandate in all nutritional advice is to limit your intake of animal fats as well as palm, palm kernel, and coconut oils. The decades-long focus on low-fat eating, however, appears to have backfired. Some experts are questioning whether restricting natural fats is necessary at all. One thing is clear: Trans fats, which you undoubtedly have heard a lot about, are the worst offender. They raise LDL and lower HDL. Thanks to the new awareness — and trans fats being listed on the Nutrition Facts panel — most manufacturers have dropped these "frankenfats." But look closely at what is listed on the ingredients label. Sometimes, what they put in to replace the trans fat may be equally bad.

The Good Fats

In the past decade, research has repeatedly shown that the healthy fats in fish, olives, nuts, seeds, and avocados deliver potent disease-fighting nutrients. Much of the research has looked at fish consumption or fish oil supplementation, and the findings have been so encouraging that the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association now recommend that most people eat fish two or three times a week (best choices include salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, albacore tuna, and rainbow trout). If you have elevated triglycerides, or if you have established cardiovascular disease, you may benefit from going one step further. Talk to your doctor about supplementing with fish oil capsules.

Fish contains two types of omega-3 fats (EPA and DHA) that have shown, among other health benefits, clear cardiovascular improvements that help prevent heart attacks and strokes. Another type of omega-3 fat (ALA) is found in flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil, soybeans, and dark, leafy greens. A small amount of ALA is converted into EPA and DHA, and it also appears to have impressive cardiovascular benefits of its own.

A Problem of Proportion

Many experts today feel that at least some of our diet-related health problems stem from an imbalance in our intake of omega-6 and omega-3 fats. We get omega-6 fats primarily from vegetable oils, and omega-3 fats mostly from fish. It has been estimated that early humans consumed these two types of fats in a ratio of 1 to 1. Today, that ratio is almost 10 to 1 in the typical American diet, with our consumption of vegetable oils far outweighing our consumption of fish oils. To improve your ratio and your health, follow these bottom line tips:

•  Eat a variety of (non-fried) fatty fish and seafood two or three times a week. (If you don't like fish, talk to your doctor about supplementing with fish oil capsules and also look for foods enriched with omega-3, such as eggs and margarines.)

•  Eat a greater variety of plant foods, including nuts, seeds, avocados, olives and soy foods.

•  Add ground flaxseed or flaxseed oil, walnuts, and dark, leafy greens to your weekly repertoire.

•  Limit your consumption of "junk" and processed foods (which almost always contain vegetable oil).

Reviewed by Susan Weiner R.D., M.S., C.D.E., C.D.N. 3/08

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