It used to be widely accepted: Saturated fat is bad. But some 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 be risky.
Here are five ways to fit fats and oils into your heart-healthy diet.
1. Don't Obsess Over Saturated Fat
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 heart-related 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%, Mozaffarian says.
But 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 raising their 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 found mainly in fatty meats and dairy foods.
2. Choose Heart-Healthy, Plant-Based Oils
Most experts still agree that it's smart to swap out some saturated fats for 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 of fat: polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. Olive oil is mostly a monounsaturated fat. Corn and soybean oils are mostly polyunsaturated. Canola oil is unusual among vegetable oils because it has omega-3 fatty acids, like those found in fish oil.
You may want to use a variety of plant-based oils. That's good for cooking and flavor, as well.
Olive oil, with its rich flavor, is great for salad dressings, for drizzling over pasta, or for dipping bread. Peanut oil and sesame oil also have rich flavors. But all three of these oils smoke and lose flavor at high temperatures.
Canola and sunflower oils 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.