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Healthy Oils, Healthy Fats: The ‘New’ Truth

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

New research has overturned some long-held ideas about good fats and bad fats. It used to be gospel truth: Saturated fat is bad. But new studies suggest that saturated fats in moderation may not be so hard on your heart after all. What's more, replacing saturated fats with the wrong foods -- such as the refined carbohydrates in white bread, white rice, pastries, candies, and desserts -- may actually raise the danger to your heart.

Here are five ways to fit fats and oils into your heart-healthy diet.

Don't Obsess Over Saturated Fat

Health experts told us to eat less saturated fat when they found that it raises LDL, the "bad" cholesterol. That advice made perfect sense. High LDL is linked to heart disease.

The focus on saturated fat alone may have been misguided. "We now know there are many other important [factors] for heart disease risk," says Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, of the Harvard School of Public Health.

When you look at all of the factors together, he says saturated fat isn't as bad as once thought. Indeed, reviewing the evidence, Mozaffarian and his colleague Renata Micha found that levels of saturated fat have very little impact on cardiovascular risk.

Americans eat about 11.5% of calories from saturated fat. If we cut that roughly in half, to 6.5%, we might lower our risk of heart disease by only about 10%, says Mozaffarian.

Unfortunately, during the low-fat craze, many people replaced saturated fat with fat-free products that were high in refined carbohydrates. That switch may end up increasing your risk for heart problems.

So can you eat as much butter and cheese as you like? No. The American Heart Association still recommends that no more than 7% of all your calories come from saturated fat, which is mainly found in fatty meats and dairy foods.

Choose Heart Healthy Plant-Based Oils

Most experts still agree that it's smart to swap out some saturated fats with unsaturated fats. Olive oil and canola oil are better choices than butter, for instance.

But there's plenty of debate about the healthiest type of oil. Vegetable oils typically mix two types: polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Olive oil is mostly a monounsaturated fats. Corn and soybean oil are mostly polyunsaturated. Canola oil is unusual among vegetable oils because it has omega-3- fatty acids, like those found in fish oil.

For now, the best bet is to use a variety of plant-based oils. That's good advice for cooking and flavor, as well.

Olive oil, with its rich flavor, is great for salad dressings, for drizzling over pasta, or dipping bread. Peanut oil and sesame oil also have rich flavors. But all three of these oils lose flavor and smoke when at high temperatures. Canola and sunflower oil are better for cooking because they have high smoke points. Also, canola oil has very little flavor of its own, so it won't overwhelm other ingredients.

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