Here's the skinny on which fats are better for you

  • Article by: SALLY SQUIRES , Washington Post
  • Updated: May 27, 2008 - 5:43 PM

A new American Heart Association campaign introduces the Better Fats Sisters, Mon and Poly.

"Fat is a scary word."

That's what someone e-mailed me last week after I had asked in a chat and a newsletter if there was ever confusion about what fats to eat.

"There are good fats and bad," this Lean Plate Club member noted correctly. "But I have no idea which fats are good for you."

She reads food labels and tries to avoid products that contain double-digit grams of fat per serving. But that puts her in a quandary because two of her favorite foods -- ice cream and peanut butter -- are high in fat. "They are my downfalls," she laments.

And while she knows that experts recommend eating some fat -- all fats, good or bad, have the same 9 calories per gram -- she's unsure how much or what types are best. "I am totally confused," she writes.

She's not alone. According to a recent American Heart Association (AHA) survey involveing 1,000 adults, fewer than half of Americans know that consuming "better" fats can help reduce their risk of heart disease. These include olive oil, rich in what chemists call monounsaturated fat, and soybean oil, a polyunsaturated fat. Both earn the distinction of being "better" because they help lower blood levels of the most dangerous cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL). The higher the LDL, the more likely your risk of suffering a heart attack, thus the more certain your doctor will prescribe a cholesterol-lowering drug (in addition to having you make diet and exercise changes).

To help clear up the fat confusion, the AHA has just unveiled the Better Fats Sisters -- part of a national public health campaign called Face the Fats (www.americanheart.org/facethefats).

The Sisters arrive a year after the AHA introduced the Bad Fats Brothers -- Trans and Sat (for artery-clogging trans fats and saturated fats). Among foods containing the Bad Fats Brothers are whole-milk dairy products and butter, plus French fries, fried chicken and other deep-fat-fried foods, especially those prepared at restaurants and fast-food establishments.

On average, American adults consume approximately 2.2 percent of total calories from trans fat a day -- or at least double the amount advised, according to the AHA. In processed foods, trans fat is being replaced by coconut, palm and other saturated fats. Swapping one bad fat for another can mean that Americans are eating four to five times as much saturated fat per day as recommended, according to the AHA.

How much fat?

The new campaign uses the Better Fats Sisters -- Mon (short for monounsaturated fat) and Poly (named for polyunsaturated fat) -- "to replace bad fats with foods that will be better choices," said Robert Eckel, past AHA president and co-director of the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center's Clinical Nutrition Research Unit.

Among the healthier fat options are vegetable oils and tub margarine in place of butter and switching to nonfat or low-fat dairy products. Avocados, fish, nuts and seeds are other good sources of better fats.

But how much fat should you eat each day? The AHA and the U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend consuming about a third of daily calories as fat, although very lean diets with as little as 20 percent of fat can still be healthful. The advice is also to keep trans fat as low as possible and to limit saturated fats to 7 percent or fewer of daily calories. The rest should come from better fats.

Few people want to eat with a calculator in hand. So on 2,000 calories a day, the average adult daily intake should be about 67 grams of fat, including 15 grams of saturated fat. That's about the amount found in a bacon cheeseburger. Check your daily fat grams with the AHA's interactive fat translator at www.myfatstranslator.com.

Whether you're eating bad fats or better fats, moderation still counts. That's because all fat contains more than twice the calories found in a gram of either protein or carbohydrates. The AHA survey found that "less than 20 percent of consumers know that all fat has the same number of calories," Eckel said. "One caution is not to feel the freedom to eat more fats because they are better. ... Good fats are not going to help people lose weight."

What also can be confusing is when a product claims zero trans fat on the label, but then includes partially hydrogenated oils on the ingredient list. If the label lists partially hydrogenated oil, then there's some trans fat present.

You can subscribe to the free Lean Plate Club e-mail newsletter at www.leanplateclub.com. Sally Squires is a writer for the Washington Post.

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