1.3.3. Choosing Healthy Fats

Balancing Your Diet With Lipids

You may reason that if some fats are healthier than other fats, why not consume as much healthy fat as desired? Remember, everything in moderation. As we review the established guidelines for daily fat intake, the importance of balancing fat consumption with proper fat sources will be explained.

Identifying Sources of Fat

Population-based studies of North American diets have shown that intake of saturated fat is more excessive than intake of trans fat and cholesterol. Saturated fat is a prominent source of fat for most people as it is so easily found in animal fats, tropical oils such as coconut and palm oil, and full-fat dairy products. Oftentimes the fat in the diet of an average young person comes from foods such as cheese, pizza, cookies, chips, desserts, and animal meats such as chicken, burgers, sausages, and hot dogs. To aim for healthier dietary choices, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends choosing lean meats and vegetable alternatives, choosing dairy products with low fat content, and minimizing the intake of trans fats. The AHA guidelines also recommend consuming fish, especially oily fish, at least twice per week.[1]

These more appropriate dietary choices will allow for enjoyment of a wide variety of foods while providing the body with the recommended levels of fat from healthier sources. Evaluate the following sources of fat in your overall dietary pattern:

  • monounsaturated fat: This type of fat is found in plant oils. Common sources are nuts (almonds, cashews, pecans, peanuts, and walnuts) and nut products, avocados, olive oil, sesame oil, high oleic safflower oil, sunflower oil, and canola oil.
  • polyunsaturated fat: This type of fat is found mainly in plant-based foods, oils, and fish. Common sources are nuts (walnuts, hazel nuts, pecans, almonds, and peanuts), soybean oil, corn oil, safflower oil, flaxseed oil, canola oil, and fish (trout, herring, and salmon).
  • saturated fat: This fat is found in animal products, dairy products, palm and coconut oils, and cocoa butter. Limit these products to less than 10 percent of your overall dietary fat consumption.
  • trans fatty acids: Stick margarines, shortening, fast foods, commercial baked goods, and some snack foods contain trans fats. Limit your consumption of these products to keep trans fats to less than 1 percent of your fat consumption.
  • omega-3 fatty acids (linolenic acid): Good sources of these are canola oil, flaxseed oil, soybean oil, olive oil, nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes, and green leafy vegetables.
  • omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA): Good sources of these are cod liver oil and fish such as tuna, herring, mackerel, salmon, and trout.
  • omega-6 fatty acids (linoleic acid): Eggs, poultry, most vegetable oils, wheat germ oil, whole grains, baked goods, and cereals contain these fatty acids. Omega-6 fatty acids are present abundantly in nuts and seeds such as flaxseeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, and watermelon seeds.

Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids

The body requires fatty acids and is adept at synthesizing the majority of these from fat, protein, and carbohydrate. However, when we say essential fatty acid we are referring to the two fatty acids that the body cannot create on its own, namely, linolenic acid and linoleic acid.

Attain the Omega-3 and Omega-6 Balance

As our food choices evolve, the sources of omega-6 fatty acids in our diets are increasing at a much faster rate than sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are plentiful in diets of non-processed foods where grazing animals and foraging chickens roam free, eating grass, clover, alfalfa, and grass-dwelling insects. In contrast, today’s western diets are bombarded with sources of omega-6. For example, we have oils derived from seeds and nuts and from the meat of animals that are fed grain. Vegetable oils used in fast-food preparations, most snack-foods, cookies, crackers, and sweet treats are also loaded with omega-6 fatty acids. Also, our bodies synthesize eicosanoids from omega-6 fatty acids and these tend to increase inflammation, blood clotting, and cell proliferation, while the hormones synthesized from omega-3 fatty acids have just the opposite effect.

While omega-6 fatty acids are essential, they can be harmful when they are out of balance with omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-6 fats are required only in small quantities. Researchers believe that when omega-6 fats are out of balance with omega-3 fats in the diet they diminish the effects of omega-3 fats and their benefits. This imbalance may elevate the risks for allergies, arthritis, asthma, coronary heart disease, diabetes, and many types of cancer, autoimmunity, and neurodegenerative diseases, all of which are believed to originate from some form of inflammation in the body.

Lipids and the Food Industry

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you read ingredients such as “partially hydrogenated oil” and “hydrogenated oil” on a food label? Do you think of heart disease, heart health, or atherosclerosis? Most people probably do not. As we uncover what hydrogenation is and why manufacturers use it, you will be better equipped to adhere to healthier dietary choices and promote your heart health.

Hydrogenation: The Good Gone Bad?

Manufacturers favor hydrogenation as a way to prevent oxidation of oils and ensure longer shelf life. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils are used in the fast food and processed food industries because they impart the desired texture and crispness to baked and fried foods. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils are more resistant to breakdown from extremely hot cooking temperatures. Because hydrogenated oils have a high smoking point they are very well suited for frying. In addition, processed vegetable oils are cheaper than fats obtained from animal sources, making them a popular choice for the food industry.

Trans fatty acids occur in small amounts in nature, mostly in dairy products. However, the trans fats that are used by the food industry are produced from the hydrogenation process. Trans fats are a result of the partial hydrogenation of unsaturated fatty acids, which cause them to have a trans configuration, rather than the naturally occurring cis configuration.

Health Implications of Trans Fats

No trans fats! Zero trans fats! We see these advertisements on a regular basis. So widespread is the concern over the issue that restaurants, food manufacturers, and even fast-food establishments proudly tout either the absence or the reduction of these fats within their products. Amid the growing awareness that trans fats may not be good for you, let’s get right to the heart of the matter. Why are trans fats so bad?

Processing naturally occurring fats to modify their texture from liquid to semisolid and solid forms results in the development of trans fats, which have been linked to an increased risk for heart disease. Trans fats are used in many processed foods such as cookies, cakes, chips, doughnuts, and snack foods to give them their crispy texture and increased shelf life. However, because trans fats can behave like saturated fats, the body processes them as if they were saturated fats. Consuming large amounts of trans fats has been associated with tissue inflammation throughout the body, insulin resistance in some people, weight gain, and digestive troubles. In addition, the hydrogenation process robs the person of the benefits of consuming the original oil because hydrogenation destroys omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The AHA states that, like saturated fats, trans fats raise LDL “bad cholesterol,” but unlike saturated fats, trans fats lower HDL “good cholesterol.” The AHA advises limiting trans-fat consumption to less than 1 percent.

How can you benefit from this information? When selecting your foods, steer clear of anything that says “hydrogenated,” “fractionally hydrogenated,” or “partially hydrogenated,” and read food labels in the following categories carefully:

  • cookies, crackers, cakes, muffins, pie crusts, pizza dough, and breads
  • stick margarines and vegetable shortening
  • premixed cake mixes, pancake mixes, and drink mixes
  • fried foods and hard taco shells
  • snack foods (such as chips), candy, and frozen dinners

Choose brands that don’t use trans fats and that are low in saturated fats.

Dietary-Fat Substitutes

In response to the rising awareness and concern over the consumption of trans fat, various fat replacers have been developed. Fat substitutes aim to mimic the richness, taste, and smooth feel of fat without the same caloric content as fat. The carbohydrate-based replacers tend to bind water and thus dilute calories. Fat substitutes can also be made from proteins (for example, egg whites and milk whey). However, these are not very stable and are affected by changes in temperature, hence their usefulness is somewhat limited.

Tools for Change

One classic cinnamon roll can have 5 grams of trans fat, which is quite high for a single snack. Many packaged foods often have their nutrient contents listed for a very small serving size—much smaller than what people normally consume—which can easily lead you to eat many “servings.” Labeling laws allow foods containing trans fat to be labeled “trans-fat free” if there are fewer than 0.5 grams per serving. This makes it possible to eat too much trans fat when you think you’re not eating any at all because it is labeled trans-fat free.

In September of 2018 Canada fully banned the addition of partially hydrogenated oils into foods sold in Canada. This ban was made it attempts to lower Canadian’s risk of heart disease.

However other forms of trans fats can still appear in foods. Always review the label for trans fat per serving. Check the ingredient list, especially the first three to four ingredients, for telltale signs of hydrogenated fat. The higher up the words “partially hydrogenated oil” are on the list of ingredients, the more trans fat the product contains.

Measure out one serving and eat one serving only. An even better choice would be to eat a fruit or vegetable. There are no trans fats and the serving size is more reasonable for similar calories. Fruits and vegetables are packed with water, fiber, and many vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and antioxidants. At restaurants be aware that phrases such as “cooked in vegetable oil” might mean hydrogenated vegetable oil, and therefore trans fat.

Lipids and Disease

Because heart disease, cancer, and stroke are the three leading causes of death in the United States and Canada, it is critical to address dietary and lifestyle choices that will ultimately decrease risk factors for these diseases. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the following risk factors are controllable: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cigarette smoking, diabetes, poor diet, physical inactivity, being overweight, and obesity.

In light of that, we present the following informational tips to help you define, evaluate, and implement healthy dietary choices to last a lifetime. The amount and the type of fat that composes a person’s dietary profile will have a profound effect upon the way fat and cholesterol is metabolized in the body.

Watch Out for Saturated Fat and Cholesterol

In proper amounts, cholesterol is a compound used by the body to sustain many important body functions. In excess, cholesterol is harmful if it accumulates in the structures of the body’s vast network of blood vessels. High blood LDL and low blood HDL are major indicators of blood cholesterol risk. The largest influence on blood cholesterol levels rests in the mix of saturated fat and trans fat in the diet. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, for every extra 2 percent of calories from trans fat consumed per day—about the amount found in a midsize order of French fries at a fast-food establishment—the risk of coronary heart disease increases by 23 percent.[2] A buildup of cholesterol in the blood can lead to brittle blood vessels and a blockage of blood flow to the affected area.

How saturated is the fat in your diet? Is it really necessary to eat saturated fat when the body makes all the saturated fat that it needs? Saturated fats should fall into the “bad” category—the body does not demand this kind of fat and it is proven to be a forerunner of cardiovascular disease. In the United States and other developed countries, populations acquire their saturated fat content mostly from meat, seafood, poultry (with skin consumed), and whole-milk dairy products (cheese, milk, and ice cream). Some plant foods are also high in saturated fats, including coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil.

Food Cholesterol’s Effect on Blood Cholesterol

Dietary cholesterol does have a small impact on overall blood cholesterol levels, but not as much as some people may think. Most people display little response to normal dietary cholesterol intake as the body responds by halting its own synthesis of the substance in favor of using the cholesterol obtained through food. Genetic factors may also influence the way a person’s body modifies cholesterol. The 2015-2020 US Dietary Guidelines suggest limiting saturated fats, thereby indirectly limiting dietary cholesterol since foods that are high in cholesterol tend to be high in saturated fats also.

A Prelude to Disease

If left unchecked, improper dietary fat consumption can lead down a path to severe health problems. An increased level of lipids, triglycerides, and cholesterol in the blood is called hyperlipidemia. Hyperlipidemia is inclusive of several conditions but more commonly refers to high cholesterol and triglyceride levels. When blood lipid levels are high, any number of adverse health problems may ensue. Consider the following conditions:

  • cardiovascular disease: According to the AHA, cardiovascular disease encompasses a variety of problems, many of which are related to the process of atherosclerosis. Over time the arteries thicken and harden with plaque buildup, causing restricted or at times low or no blood flow to selected areas of the body.
  • heart attack: A heart attack happens when blood flow to a section of the heart is cut off due to a blood clot. Many have survived heart attacks and go on to return to their lives and enjoy many more years of life on this earth. However, dietary and lifestyle changes must be implemented to prevent further attacks.
  • ischemic stroke: The most common type of stroke in the United States, ischemic stroke, occurs when a blood vessel in the brain or leading to the brain becomes blocked, again usually from a blood clot. If part of the brain suffers lack of blood flow and/or oxygen for three minutes or longer, brain cells will start to die.
  • congestive heart failure: Sometimes referred to as heart failure, this condition indicates that the heart is not pumping blood as well as it should. The heart is still working but it is not meeting the body’s demand for blood and oxygen. If left unchecked, it can progress to further levels of malfunction.
  • arrhythmia: This is an abnormal rhythm of the heart. The heart may beat above one hundred beats per minute (known as tachycardia) or below sixty beats per minute (known as bradycardia), or the beats are not regular. The heart may not be able to pump enough volume of blood to meet the body’s needs.
  • heart valve problems: Stenosis is a condition wherein the heart valves become compromised in their ability to open wide enough to allow proper blood flow. When the heart valves do not close tightly and blood begins to leak between chambers, this is called regurgitation. When valves bulge or prolapse back into the upper chamber, this condition is called mitral valve prolapse.
  • obesity: Obesity is defined as the excessive accumulation of body fat. According to US Surgeon General Richard Carmona, obesity is the fastest growing cause of death in America. The HHS reports that the number of adolescents who are overweight has tripled since 1980 and the prevalence of the disease among younger children has doubled.[3]
  • diabetes and heart disease: Obesity has been linked to increased risks of developing these conditions. To help combat this problem, important dietary changes are necessary. Reducing the type and amount of carbohydrates and sugar consumed daily is critical. Limiting the intake of saturated fats and trans fats, increasing physical activity, and eating fewer calories are all equally important in this fight against obesity.

What You Can Do

Remember that saturated fats are found in large amounts in foods of animal origin. They should be limited within the diet. Polyunsaturated fats are generally obtained from non-animal sources. While they are beneficial for lowering bad cholesterol they also lower good cholesterol. They are better for you than saturated fats but are not to be consumed in excess. Monounsaturated fats are of plant origin and are found in most nuts, seeds, seed oils, olive oil, canola oil, and legumes. Monounsaturated fats are excellent because they not only lower bad cholesterol, but also they elevate the good cholesterol. Replace current dietary fats with an increased intake of monounsaturated fats.

Choose whole-grain and high-fiber foods. Reduced risk for cardiovascular disease has been associated with diets that are high in whole grains and fiber. Fiber also slows down cholesterol absorption. The AHA recommends that at least half of daily grain intake should originate from whole grains. The Adequate Intake value for fiber is 14 grams per 1,000 kilocalories. These amounts are based upon the amount of fiber that has been shown to reduce cardiovascular risk.

Do not be sedentary. Get more exercise on a regular basis. Increasing your energy expenditure by just twenty minutes of physical activity at least three times per week will improve your overall health. Physical exercise can help you manage or prevent high blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels. Regular activity raises HDL while at the same time decreases triglycerides and plaque buildup in the arteries. Calories are burned consistently, making it easier to lose and manage weight. Circulation will improve, the body will be better oxygenated, and the heart and blood vessels will function more efficiently.

A Personal Choice About Lipids

A Guide to Making Sense of Dietary Fat

On your next trip to the grocery store prepare yourself to read all food labels carefully and to seriously consider everything that goes into your shopping cart. Create a shopping list and divide your list into columns for “Best,” “Better,” “Good,” “Least Desirable,” and “Infrequent Foods.” As you refine your sense of dietary fat, here are key points to bear in mind.

Shopping for groceries. Don’t be bombarded with gratuitous grams of saturated fats and empty grams of trans fats. Read and decipher food labels carefully so that you know exactly what types of fat a food item contains and how much fat it will contribute to your overall fat intake. For snacks and daily eating, gravitate toward foods that are lowest in or absent of harmful trans fats. Restrict other foods to occasional usage based upon their fat content. For example, if selecting prepared foods, choose the ones without high-fat sauces in favor of adding your own flavorings. If selecting precooked meats, avoid those that are fried, coated, or prepared in high-fat sauces. A popular and healthy precooked meat food choice is the rotisserie chicken that most supermarkets carry. When selecting meats be aware of the need to compare different cuts—notice their fat content, color, and marbling. Higher-fat meats tend to have whiter fat marbled throughout. Choose lean cuts and white meat as these are lower in saturated fat. Always choose plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, as their phytosterols are a good competitor for cholesterol. Keep a collection of nuts in your freezer that can be added to your salads, stir-fry, one-dish foods, soups, desserts, and yogurts.

Appearance. Saturated and trans fats are not good for you and must be placed in your “Least Desirable” column because they increase cholesterol levels and put you at risk for heart disease. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are better choices to replace these undesirable fats. The key in identifying the “Best” or “Better” fats from the “Least Desirable” fats while you shop is based upon appearance. When choosing fats remember that saturated fats and trans fats are solid at room temperature; think of butter. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature; think of vegetable oil.

Try to eliminate as much trans fat as possible from your food selections. Avoid commercially baked goods and fast foods. Make these your “Infrequent Foods.”

Choose unsaturated fats. Fatty fish, walnuts, flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, and canola oil all have good health benefits and should be on the “Best,” “Better,” and “Good” fat lists. They each provide essential omega-3 fatty acids necessary for overall body health. To derive the most benefit from including these foods, do not add them to an existing diet full of fat. Use these to replace the “Least Desirable” fats that are being removed from the diet.

Limit saturated fat intake. Reduce red meat consumption, processed meats, and whole-fat dairy products. To reduce full-fat dairy items try their low-fat or nonfat counterparts such as mozzarella cheese.

Low fat does not equal healthy. Remember, a fat-free label does not provide you with a license to consume all the calories you desire. There will be consequences to your weight and your overall health. Common replacements for fat in many fat-free foods are refined carbohydrates, sugar, and calories. Too much of these ingredients can also cause health problems. Choose and consume wisely.

A “better-fat” diet will successfully support weight loss. While cutting “Least Desirable” fat calories are vital to weight loss, remember that “Better” fats are filling and just a handful of nuts can curb an appetite to prevent overeating.

Consume omega-3 fats each day. For optimal health and disease prevention include a moderate serving of fish, walnuts, ground flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, or soybean oil in your diet every day.

How much saturated fat is too much? Your goal is to keep your intake of saturated fat to no more than 10 percent of your total dietary calories on a daily basis. Thus, it is important to learn to reduce the intake of foods high in saturated fat. High-fat foods can be consumed but they must fall within the overall goal for a person’s fat allowance for the day.

Home cooking. Limit the use of saturated fats in home preparation of meals. Instead of butter try spreads made from unsaturated oils such as canola or olive oils and the use of cooking sprays. Couple this with the use of herbs and spices to add flavor. Avoid using high-fat meat gravies, cheese, and cream sauces. Limit adding extras to foods such as butter on a baked potato. Use nonfat sour cream instead. Grill, bake, stir-fry, roast, or bake your foods. Never fry in solid fats such as butter or shortening. Marinate foods to be grilled in fruit juices and herbs. Instead of relying upon commercial salad dressings, learn to make your own top-quality dressing from cold-pressed olive oil, flaxseed oil, or sesame oil.

Make sure the fat is flavorful. Adding flavor to food is what makes the eating experience enjoyable. Why not choose unsaturated fats and oils that have strong flavors? In this way you will add good flavor to your meals but use less fat in the process. Some examples are sesame oil, peanut oil, and peanut butter. Replace less flavorful cheeses with small amounts of strongly flavored cheeses such as romano, parmesan, and asiago.

  1. Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids. American Heart Association. https://healthyforgood.heart.org/Eat-smart/Articles/Fish-and-Omega-3-Fatty-Acids. Updated March 24, 2017. Accessed October 5, 2017.
  2. Fats and Cholesterol. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/fats-full-story/. Updated 2017. Accessed September 28, 2017.
  3. Bishop, J. et al. ASPE Research Brief: Childhood Obesity. Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. May 1, 2005.https://aspe.hhs.gov/basic-report/aspe-childhood-obesity-white-paper. Accessed October 5, 2012.


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Fundamentals of Health and Physical Activity by Kerri Z. Delaney and Leslie Barker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.