The skinny on fats: Clearing up the confusion

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Back in your grandmother’s day, a good home-cooked meal included biscuits made with lard, chicken-fried crisp in lard, greens seasoned with ham hocks, all topped off by a cake that would melt in your mouth — thanks to a pound of butter in the batter. And no one thought a thing of eating all that fat, except mmm, this is goo-ood.

In the 1970s research found that the increasing incidence of cardiovascular disease in the United States was directly related to a high intake of fat — particularly saturated fat, the type that’s in lard, butter and ham hocks. So, we revamped our recipes and our grocery lists, substituting heart-healthy fats, like margarine and corn oil, and buying low-fat and fat-free versions of our favorite goodies.

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But then we learned that margarines have “trans-fat” — which acts like saturated fat, raising cholesterol levels and clogging arteries. So, we ditched the margarine, and started working magic in the kitchen with heart-healthy olive oil and canola oil.

And now? The experts have started to say that “splurging” on lard every now and then may actually be good for your heart.

Confused? Who wouldn’t be? But here are the fast facts on fats:

There are three types of fat: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. And, all fats and oils are made up of some combination of the three. You want the fats you eat to be low in cholesterol-raising sat-fats and trans-fats, but higher in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which can help lower cholesterol.

Margarine is made with hydrogenated vegetable oils that contain trans-fats, or polyunsaturated fats that have been chemically changed to make them stay solid at room temperature. They may act as saturated fat in the body, raising cholesterol levels.

The verdict: Margarine is fine but check the nutrition facts panel and select those with zero trans-fat.

Vegetable shortening is also made with hydrogenated oil that contain trans-fat.

The verdict: Use sparingly, and stick to varieties made with palm or coconut oil; they are trans-fat free.

Butter contains saturated fats that raise cholesterol levels. Saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature, and are also found in other animal-derived foods like meat, bacon, poultry, eggs and other dairy products.
The verdict: In moderation, butter won’t kill you. Opt for whipped or light butter – same great taste, half the saturated fat.

Butter Blends contain a mix of butter and olive oil or other vegetable oil. These spreadable blends have less fat and calories than regular butter, but can be used in the same way you’d use butter.

The verdict: Use this in moderation. It’s still butter, after all.

Vegetable oils such as canola, olive, and peanut oil contain monounsaturated fats — the so-called heart-healthy fats — because they don’t cause increased cholesterol levels. Polyunsaturated fats are usually liquid or soft at room temperature and are found mostly in vegetable oils such as safflower, sunflower, corn and flaxseed.

The verdict: Vegetable oil is fine in moderation. But, remember when it comes to calories “fat is fat.”

Lard, the fat that is rendered from pork, contains saturated fat. Normally, you want to stay away from this cholesterol-raising ingredient. But, as food scientists experiment with ways to reduce trans-fat in food products, lard is being revisited as an alternative to vegetable shortening. Lard is natural, has no trans-fat and actually has more heart-healthy fat.

The verdict: Use lard sparingly and save for special occasions. (Note that some packaged products like corn muffin mix contain lard.)

Tropical oils: Tropical oils such as coconut oil, palm kernel oil, and palm oil are saturated fats and can cause your body to produce too much cholesterol. But don’t count them out. “Vilified during the 1980s, tropical oils — which have been consumed by their native populations for centuries — are worth another look,” says Lauren Swann, MS, RD, LDN a nutritionist and marketing communications consultant.

The verdict: In moderation tropical oils are fine. They’re trans-fat free.

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So what should you eat? “Emerging science continuously reinforces that natural ingredients tend to be safer than those chemically rearranged,” Swann says, “Butter is more natural than hydrogenated oils; coconut oil is naturally occurring and has been consumed by native populations for years.”

Make most of your fat sources from healthy fats, such as those found in nuts, avocados, and olive and canola oils. Also look for foods that contain a form of polyunsaturated fat called omega-3, which is thought to help lower levels of triglycerides, the form of fat that gets stored in your body. Salmon, albacore tuna, herring, and mackerel are called “fatty fish” because they are rich in omega-3 oils.

If you choose to occasionally use butter, lard or coconut oil, do so in moderation. Check the nutrition facts label to keep saturated fats low and free of trans-fat. Remember, no matter what form of fat you eat, it contains over 100 calories per tablespoon. So, limit fat if you want to keep your calorie intake down.

Constance Brown-Riggs, MSEd, RD is an award winning registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She is the author of The African American Guide To Living Well With Diabetes and Eating Soulfully and Healthfully with Diabetes. Follow Brown-Riggs on twitter @eatingsoulfully.