The Skinny on Fats

The recommendations for dietary fat intake have changed over the years… some years, we’re told to eat very low fat, other years fat intake is okay, while eating “cholesterol free” is what many seek, the type of fat, and source of fat, is what impacts health.

If you are old enough to recall that in the 1980s, the recommendations were to switch from butter to margarine and people were told to avoid eating eggs. The 90s kicked off with the “fat free” craze (eat low or no fat)… Snackwells, olestra and Susan Powter’s “Stop the Insanity” were the rage. Nuts and avocados are still believed to be big “no-no’s” because they contain fat and many are confused about how much and which type of fat is okay to consume.

Fat-Health Link
The cause for concern about dietary fat consumption has to do with correlations between fat intake and cardiovascular disease and cancer. Scientific research drives recommendations to change as epidemiology, improved research design and testing methods have been able to provide data that we can use to look at preventing diseases, and possibly improving health outcomes using non-pharmacological interventions (when possible).

Types of Fats
If you want to take charge of your fat intake and know the reason why – here is a simple description of fats as they appear in foods:

• Saturated Fats raise total and LDL (bad) cholesterol and HDL (good) cholesterol. They are found in animal products like beef, pork and milk along with tropical oils like palm kernel and coconut oil. There are slight differences in saturated fats and how they impact your body.

• Monounsaturated Fats lower total and LDL cholesterol while increasing the HDL cholesterol. They are found in avocados, olive oil, nuts and some tropical oils (palm olein)

• Polyunsaturated Fats lower total and LDL cholesterol with smaller HDL improvements. They are found in vegetable oils and are abundant in corn and sunflower oil.

• Trans Fats are the bad guys that raise LDL and lower HDL cholesterol. Despite the mandatory labeling and food industry push to reformulate without them, small amounts still exist in processed and fried foods.

How Much of a Good Thing?
We know that eating no or low fat diets are not good… fats transport fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K into and through the body. Essential fatty acids – found in fish oils – provide omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids – which help to protect the body from inflammation. Fat is used for fuel, in conjunction with carbohydrates (glucose/glycogen) and is the most efficient way to store excess energy when caloric intake is inadequate.

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines suggest up to 35 percent of calories from fat, where as dietary recommendations to improve cardiovascular health, like the DASH Diet, suggest no more than 27 percent of total calories from fat.

Americans have had the belief that if a little bit of something is good, a lot must be even better. Just watch how much olive oil people use to dip their bread at a restaurant (along with eating the whole loaf versus one or two slices).

Eat More of This….
In addition to olive oil, fish oil, nuts and avocados… believe it or not, palm fruit oil can be an important ingredient for the prevention of disease. Not to be confused with the bad press of palm kernel oil, palm fruit oil is red in color, due to its rich beta carotene content. Vitamin A is important for optimum eye function.

It also is loaded with tocotrienols – which are a form of vitamin E. Tocotrienols protect neurons in the brain from damage or death – which is being researched by the NIH for stroke brain damage prevention. In addition, the tocotrienols may prove to minimize inflammation and improve immune response. This is great news for ongoing cancer and cardiovascular research.

Palm fruit oil is one of the few viable sources for solid fats to replace dietary trans fats. The American Heart Association has recommended a balance of between the saturated, mono and poly unsaturated fatty acids… no more than 10 percent daily of each. You shouldn’t get nervous if you see palm fruit oil as an ingredient listed in packaged foods. It happens to be one of the oils used in Smart Balance’s proprietary blend, which touts improved cardiovascular health.

Palm fruit trees are grown around the world… most notably in Africa, Malaysia and Indonesia. It is a versatile oil which you can find on its own or in a canola blend. Either way, the return on investment (ROI) for health is one worth amassing for future gains! As a person with a strong family history of heart disease, I am always seeking opportunities through food and exercise to minimize my risk and improve my health outcomes. Foods can help play a role in the “fountain of youth” from the inside out!

Felicia D. Stoler, DCN, MS, RD, FACSM is a doctorally trained registered dietitian, exercise physiologist, TV personality and expert consultant in disease prevention, wellness and healthy living. She is the author of "Living Skinny in Fat Genes: The Healthy Way to Lose Weight and Feel Great." She hosted TLC's groundbreaking series "Honey We're Killing the Kids!" Become a fan of Felicia on Facebook, follow her on Twitter or visit her website