Look for the consistent message: Rethinking dietary fat

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Which fats are healthy and which aren’t? Consumers looking for a clear, consistent message on this topic regularly face conflicting ones, coming from every imaginable direction, sometimes intensified by strong media hype. In May of this year a study was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine that stated consuming a diet high in saturated fat was not a problem for health. In June there was a segment on the Today show touting the study and a slice of butter on the cover of Time magazine. The scientific community, particularly the American Heart Association and Harvard School of Public Health fired out webinars and statement papers addressing the obvious problems and limitations of that particular study. They clearly stated what the bulk of reliable scientific evidence has shown on the subject.

Their message: a high intake of saturated fat does in fact pose a health risk. Saturated fats are found in higher proportion in animal fats with seafood being the exception. On the other hand, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats provide many health benefits. These are found in higher proportion in plant foods, with coconut and palm kernel oil being the exception. The most interesting part to me was that the take home message was not to cut fat across the board. A low fat diet actually does demonstrate some health risks. A moderate fat diet is the most health protective, but most importantly, where saturated fats are reduced and mono and polyunsaturated fats are high.

I like that. After all, taste is the bottom line when it comes to food choices, no matter how much we know about health, and fat improves flavor. So it becomes as simple as finding ways to substitute fat for fat.

The foods high in mono and polyunsaturated fats are canola, corn, cottonseed, flaxseed, olive, peanut, safflower, soybean, and sunflower oils, avocados, nuts, seeds, both lean and fatty fish, and olives. While these are all “healthy fats”, extra calories are never healthy. Replace, don’t add.

For example, you can choose mashed avocado in place of mayonnaise, chopped avocado or olives in place of sour cream for a topping, or dips that have mashed avocado or peanut butter as a base. Decide how you will manage the foods you like that are high in saturated fats, like fatty meats, lard, coconut oil, cream, or butter. While spreads fortified with plant sterols or stanols are supported by reliable clinical evidence as a “healthy fat”, the evidence that some of these saturated fats are super star health foods appears to be more testimonial than clinical.

Keep it simple, look to reliable sources, and let the hype blow by.

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