Have you heard the one about heart disease and saturated fat? A recent study made headlines in the New York Times and other papers across the nation, with flashy headlines catching the attention of many: “Study doubts saturated fat’s link to heart disease”. I know, it sounds like a great justification for eating that double cheeseburger. But it’s also a contradiction to the recommendations of the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology, who encourage us to limit excessive saturated fat. What is an eater to do?
First, take this latest study with a healthy dose of skepticism. The authors said they did not find that people who ate higher levels of saturated fat had more heart disease than those who ate less. But the information was poorly collected: researchers either asked people what they ate yesterday (which may be very different from what they typically eat) or how often they ate certain foods (which also does not capture the whole picture). Lastly, people were mostly asked what they ate at the start of the study, rather than over the course of the study’s 10 or 15 years, when researchers then checked back to see if they got heart disease. So, one day of eating a double cheeseburger may look like it does not cause heart disease 15 years later even though every other day may have been full of healthy foods and exercise.
Second, remember that it is never a good idea to focus on just one dietary factor. When people cut saturated fats (such as meat, cheese and butter) from their diet, they often replace them with bread, cereal and other refined carbohydrates that can also be bad for your heart health. When people cut carbs, they often replace them with multiple daily servings of meat, also not heart healthy. Why go to the extreme? Include a variety of fats, carbohydrates and proteins in moderation, with a healthy habit of physical activity, and you’ll be able to eat for enjoyment without excess.
Third, consider that the healthiest populations in the world eat a mostly plant-based diet and eat a variety of foods from all food groups. We should focus on FOOD, not fats and proteins and carbs. Here’s what the vast realm of research supports for good health and longevity: a diet of mostly vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds, fish and whole grains with meat, dairy and oils added for flavor and interest. And don’t forget the dark chocolate and occasional glass of red wine. There is room for that double cheeseburger, just not every day or to the exclusion of real food. Real food that is not processed and filled with salt and sugar. Real food that looks, smells and taste like its natural form. Bon appetit!
As seen in the Fort Collins Coloradoan
Part of the traditional Southeast Asian diet, coconut oil has taken our country by storm. It is sometimes hailed as a super food and sometimes criticized as a fad. What is the truth behind this tropical food?
Coconut oil is a fat taken from coconut flesh. Coconut oil comes from dried coconut treated with chemicals to produce the oil, which is used in movie theater popcorn, coffee creamer and candy. Virgin coconut oil is a more recent alternative: this fat is extracted from coconut meat in a multistep process. Both contain saturated fat.
Saturated fat is the “bad” fat that raises total cholesterol and LDL -- or bad cholesterol. But not all saturated fats are created equal. Sixty percent of coconut oil fat is composed of medium chain triglycerides, also called MCTs, while other oils contain mostly long chain triglycerides, known as LCTs.
MCT are metabolized differently than LCTs; they are transported directly from the digestive tract to the liver, where they are used as fuel. They are less likely to be deposited into fat tissue. This makes coconut oil a popular weight loss product.
But is it effective? Only if you watch your calories and keep them low – coconut oil calories are still stored as fat once your body’s fuel needs are met. At 120 calories per tablespoon, nobody is going to lose weight by adding this to their typical diet. Bottom line: skip the coconut oil, eat less and move more.
Let’s look at other recent claims about this oil.
Alzheimer’s disease? A popular book describes a man whose Alzheimer’s symptoms improved dramatically after eating coconut oil (and MCT oil) daily. Theoretically, the Alzheimer’s-diseased brain can use ketones produced from MCTs to replace the glucose it is no longer able to use, but the few studies done have been poorly designed and inconclusive. Bottom line: more research is needed.
Heart disease? Research participants fed coconut oil or pure MCTs showed an increase in LDL and total cholesterol, but also an increase in HDL (good) cholesterol, which offers protection against heart disease. Unfortunately, an increase in HDL when LDL also increases probably does not lower the risk of disease. Bottom line: vegetable oils such as olive oil are still recommended because they increase HDL while also lowering LDL.
Best oil for cooking? For a vegan or anyone limiting animal products, coconut oil is a tasty butter replacement. For others, it adds a unique flavor to food and can be used instead of shortening for baking. It also gives food a unique texture and cooking characteristics. Bottom line: enjoy coconut oil in small amounts if you like the taste or texture, but be wary of its touted health benefits.
Take a cue from the Pacific Islanders who consume coconuts on a regular basis: enjoy coconut oil as part of a diet that is low in sugar, cholesterol and salt, high in fiber, plant foods and fish, and part of a physically active lifestyle.
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A friend once asked me: which is worse, a pound of butter or a pound of margarine? My reply was, and still is, it depends. Are we talking about prevention of heart disease? Baking? Taste? It’s worth considering the pros and cons of each.
Butter is made from animal fat, so it contains dietary cholesterol and saturated fat, both of which contribute to heart disease. The recommended intake of saturated fat ranges from 10 – 15 grams per day or less, and one tablespoon of butter contains more than 7 grams.
On the other hand, butter is natural, has been around for generations and tastes good. It’s also your best fat for baking, since its high fat content results in light, flaky and tender products. Use unsalted butter for the best results, and consider these baked goods special treats to be enjoyed in moderation.
If you want butter for uses other than baking, try whipped butter or butter that is blended with a vegetable oil. These contain half the cholesterol and fat as regular butter, but still taste good.
What about margarine? Maybe you have heard the urban legend that margarine is only one molecule from being plastic. It’s an often repeated but pointless myth, since many substances share similar chemical properties but vastly different qualities.
Margarine is considered a better choice than butter for a healthy heart. It is made from vegetable oil so it does not contain cholesterol and is higher in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats than butter. These are the good fats that help reduce your body’s LDL – or bad-- cholesterol when substituted for saturated fat. The trick is choosing the right margarine!
To answer my friend’s question, I would have to point out that a pound of either butter or margarine is a really bad idea. High in calories, they should both be used in moderation. As for me, I will continue to choose light margarine spread for my morning toast, olive oil for sautéing vegetables and butter for occasional baking. For the holidays, I’m looking forward to enjoying homemade cookies with my family, butter and all, eaten one mindful bite at a time!
As seen in the Fort Collins Coloradoan
Melissa Wdowik, PhD, RDN, LDN, FAND
is a nutrition educator with over 20 years experience as a college professor, nutrition coach, presenter and writer, as well as a nutrition consultant and founding director of the Kendall Reagan Nutrition Center.