The Skinny On Fats

by Dave on July 4, 2009

As first seen in Coastal Sussex Weekly, June 18, 2009:

by Lisa Harkins, RD

Contrary to popular belief, fat is essential for our good health.  Fat stores needed energy in the body. It insulates our body tissues, it cushions our organs, and it transports fat soluble vitamins like A, D and K in the blood. Fat also enhances the flavor of foods (Paula Deen anyone?), makes baked products more tender, and it conducts heat during cooking.

Sounds good, right? BUT – not all fats are the same.

Saturated fat comes from animal and plant sources, and is solid at room temperature. This is a type of fat that when eaten in large quantities has been shown to increase our risk of heart disease. Polyunsaturated fats are complex unsaturated fats. They are found in corn, safflower, sunflower and soybean oils. The simple unsaturated fats are the monounsaturated fats. These fats are found in high concentrations in olive and canola oils.  Both poly and monounsaturated fats are a much healthier choice than saturated fats, and consumption of foods higher specifically in monounsaturated fats have shown to decrease our risk of heart disease.

Trans-fats, or partially hydrogenated oils, are found primarily in pastries, stick margarine and shortening. It has been discovered that trans-fats significantly increase risk of cardiovascular disease in humans, and thus have been gradually reduced or eliminated in many food products previously containing them.

Omega-3s are polyunsaturated fats that have special anti-inflammatory properties. Studies have shown that regular consumption of these fats can relieve arthritis symptoms, improve cardiovascular health (by decreasing triglycerides, lowering blood pressure, and reducing blood-clotting), and even increase insulin sensitivity (extremely beneficial to diabetics). Research has also shown that omega-3s may decrease risk of cancer, mitigate irritable bowel syndrome symptoms, as well as assist those that suffer with depression.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), eating one to two servings of fatty fish a week like salmon or halibut (which contain the essential fatty acids DHA and EPA) could reduce your risk of dying of a heart attack by a third or more – and evidence is stronger for omega- 3s from food sources versus supplements.

If you choose a supplement, the Dietary Reference Intake from the Institute of Medicine is 650mg per day. For individuals with documented heart disease the AHA recommends a daily dose of 1,000mg. Those looking to decrease their triglyceride levels may be encouraged by their doctor to take a more therapeutic dose of 2,000mg-4,000mg daily.

An alternative to fish and fish oil supplements is flax seed. Flax seed contains alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), another essential fatty acid proven to promote heart health. Flax seed is ground into a powder or distilled into an oil that is easy to mix into foods such as oatmeal, yogurt, cereal or salads. Just two to three tablespoons daily has been shown to have a beneficial effect.

So how much fat should we actually eat? The AHA recommends the following guidelines: total fat, 25-35% of your total calories, saturated fat, less than 7% of your total calories, and Trans fats, less than 1% of your total calories per day.

But remember…even though some fats promote heart health, they still have nine calories per gram – the same as artery-clogging butter and lard! So consume heart-healthy fats in moderation.

Lisa Harkins is a clinical registered dietitian with Bayhealth Medical Centers and the owner of Ideal Nutrition and Fitness LLC. She can be reached at

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