Ask Stephie: ‘Dietary fats’: The right ones to include in your diet

Most of us can recall the whole fat frenzy. We have seen many fad diets come and go. For a while, diets pushed low-fat or no-fat foods, then other diets pushed high-fat foods. Now, we seem to be right in the middle. Most modern “diet books” at least recognize we need to consume some fats and oils, not only for weight loss, but for health reasons, too.

Your body needs fat to function properly. Besides being an energy source, fat is a nutrient used in the production of cell membranes, as well as in several hormone-like compounds called eicosanoids. These compounds help regulate blood pressure, heart rate, blood vessel constriction, blood clotting and the nervous system. In addition, dietary fat carries fat-soluble vitamins—A, D, E and K—from your food into your body. Fat also helps maintain healthy hair and skin, protects vital organs, keeps your body insulated, and provides a sense of fullness after meals (satiety).

When choosing fats, your best options are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These fats, if used in place of others, can lower your risk of heart disease by reducing the total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol levels in your blood. Cholesterol, which your body produces for building cells, is the main substance in fatty deposits (plaques) that can develop in your arteries. Plaques that build up can reduce blood flow through your vessels, increasing your risk of heart disease and stroke.

One type of polyunsaturated fat, omega-3 fatty acids, may be especially beneficial to your health. Omega-3s appear to decrease the risk of coronary artery disease. They may also protect against irregular heartbeats and help lower blood pressure levels. In addition, omega-3 fats can even increase fat metabolism and energy production.

Here are the differences among these healthy fats, as well as the best food sources for each type:

Monounsaturated fat remains liquid at room temperature but may start to solidify in the refrigerator. Foods high in monounsaturated fat include olive, peanut and canola oils. Avocados and most nuts also have high amounts of monounsaturated fat.

Polyunsaturated fat is usually liquid at room temperature and in the refrigerator. Foods high in polyunsaturated fats include vegetable oils, such as safflower, corn, sunflower, soy and cottonseed oils.

Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats found mostly in seafood. Good sources of omega 3s include fatty, cold-water fish, such as salmon, mackerel and herring. Flaxseeds, flax oil and walnuts also contain omega-3 fatty acids.

Saturated and trans fats are less healthy kinds of fats. They can increase your risk of heart disease by increasing your total and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Dietary cholesterol isn’t technically a fat, but it is found in food derived from animal sources. Intake of dietary cholesterol increases blood cholesterol levels, but not as much as saturated and trans fats, and not to the same degree in all people.

Here are how these less healthy fats differ and what their common food sources are:

Saturated fat is usually solid or waxy at room temperature and is most often found in animal products—such as red meat, poultry, butter and whole milk. Other foods high in saturated fat include palm and other tropical oils.

Trans fat, also referred to as trans-fatty acids, comes from adding hydrogen to vegetable oil through a process called hydrogenation. This makes the fat more solid and less likely to turn rancid. Hydrogenated fat is a common ingredient in commercial baked goods—such as crackers, cookies and cakes—and in fried foods, such as doughnuts and French fries. Shortenings and some margarines also are high in trans fat. As of January 2006, food manufacturers are required to list trans fat content on nutrition labels. Amounts less than 0.5 grams per serving is listed as 0 grams trans fat on food labels.

Dietary cholesterol is naturally manufactured by the body in the amounts it needs, but you also get additional cholesterol from animal products, such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy products, lard and butter.

Limit fat in your diet, but don’t try to cut it out completely. Focus on reducing foods high in saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol, and select more foods made with unsaturated fats.

Bon appétit.

Stephie Steele is owner of Symmetry Fitness, LLC. She has been featured in IDEA Health & Fitness Source magazine and specializes in weight loss, sports performance, total body fitness, posture alignment therapy, strength training, core conditioning, cardiovascular and flexibility training. Readers can send their questions to Stephie via e-mail to

From the Nov. 1-7, 2006, issue

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