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Front Page » September 23, 2004 » Health & Fitness » Get the skinny on the dangers of saturated fats
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Get the skinny on the dangers of saturated fats

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Making a few dietary changes and checking ingredient labels of the foods we eat can reduce our intake of saturated and trans fats.

In our world of fast foods and hurried lifestyles, making healthy food choices isn't always easy - not only because of time constraints, but because of the confusion that results every time another research report or study is released, revealing conflicting information from previous years. We just aren't sure anymore what is or is not healthy to eat and why. Armed with the information we have and our sound judgment, we hope we are making some improvements in our eating habits and our overall health, in spite of all the controversy.

Now you can put an end to some of the confusion about one health-related item that's often in the news - trans fatty acids. Here's the lowdown on good fats and bad fats and how you can eliminate the bad ones from your diet.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids and monounsaturated fatty acids are the "good fats" that help lower total blood cholesterol when substituted for saturated fats, and significantly reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. Polyunsaturated oils are liquid at room temperature and in the refrigerator. Monounsaturated oils are liquid at room temperature but start to solidify at refrigerator temperatures. For example, salad dressing containing olive oil turns cloudy when refrigerated, but is clear at room temperature. Both types of fats can be found in foods such as fish, olive oil, canola oil, soybean oil, avocados and walnuts, to name a few.

Saturated fats and trans fatty acids, or trans fats, are the "bad fats." They raise LDL (bad) blood cholesterol levels in the body, clog the arteries, and promote heart disease and stroke. Saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature.

Trans fats are even worse than saturated fats because they not only raise LDL (bad) cholesterol, but they also lower HDL (good) cholesterol when used instead of unsaturated fatty acids or natural oils. While these changes may increase the risk of heart disease, according to the American Heart Association, it's unclear if trans fats that occur naturally have the same effect on cholesterol and heart disease as those produced by hydrogenating vegetable oils. Saturated fats are in food items such as red meat, butter and ice cream. Trans fats are found in commercially packaged goods such as cookies and crackers, commercially fried foods like French fries, and processed foods such as margarines and vegetable shortening.

"Before the invention of trans fatty acids, we cooked food with lard, palm oil or butter, etc., which are high in saturated fats," says Gloria Tsang, RD. "When researchers found that saturated fats increased LDL (bad) cholesterol and the risk of heart disease, manufacturers started to use healthier vegetable oils in their food production." Tsang explains further, "Because liquid vegetable oils are not stable to heat and can go rancid easily, scientists began to 'hydrogenate' them so they could withstand better in the food production process and provide a better shelf life. As a result of this hydrogenation, trans fats are formed."

We can minimize the intake of both saturated fats and trans fats by making a few dietary changes and checking the ingredient labels of the foods we eat. Luckily for us the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all food manufacturers to list the amount of trans fats contained in their products on their ingredient labels by 2006. Some food companies like Kraft and Frito-Lay are already removing trans fats from some of their products, and Whole Foods Market has stopped selling foods that contain trans fats altogether. However, until all companies comply, we will have to carefully read all ingredient labels of the products we buy if we want to reduce our intake of saturated and trans fats. The FDA says we will still be able to identify if a product contains trans fatty acids if the ingredient list includes the words, "shortening," "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil," or "hydrogenated vegetable oil." Because the ingredients are listed in descending order of predominance, smaller amounts are present when the ingredient is close to the end of the list.

To reduce your intake of saturated and trans fats, you can:

• Reduce consumption of saturated fatty acids found in tropical oils such as palm and coconut oils, and in animal foods such as meat, lard and dairy products.

• Avoid high intakes of trans fatty acids by limiting consumption of traditional commercially fried foods, stick margarines, and high-fat baked products.

• Substitute canola oil in home baking when a recipe calls for a solid fat (margarine, butter, lard or shortening) to be melted and then added to the recipe.

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September 23, 2004
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