Quality may matter just as much as quantity when it comes to consuming fats. In fact, diets with a higher percentage of fats -- if they are the right kind -- can actually be better for you than their lower-fat counterparts, according to a recent report issued by the American Heart Association (AHA) and published in the September 14, 1999, issue of the journal Circulation.
Make sure you include healthful fats in your diet by stocking your kitchen with olive, canola and peanut oils -- examples of monounsaturated fats. The AHA's recommendation is that no more than 30 percent of your calories come from fat. But a diet rich in these monounsaturated fats, according to the September report, can help lower the risk of heart disease -- even if your fat intake somewhat exceeds 30 percent.
Take a good look, too, at how much of your diet includes saturated fats -- fats that come from animal and dairy sources and some plant oils, such as coconut and palm oils. These can increase your cholesterol level and should be avoided.
One of the study's authors is Penny Kris-Etherton, Ph.D. -- a distinguished professor of nutrition at Penn State University and a member of the AHA nutrition committee. Her study suggests that a fat intake as high as 35 percent can still be healthy -- but she stresses that this is only true if the fats are monounsaturated.
The AHA also recommends that saturated and polyunsaturated fats should make up less than 10 percent of your calorie intake, and that monounsaturated fats should make up no more than 15 percent.
All Fats Are Not Created Equal
Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) help lower LDL cholesterol, the kind that can build up on arterial walls and increase your risk of heart attack and stroke, says Kris-Etherton, even if they make up as much as 35 percent of your calorie intake. But a diet high in saturated and polyunsaturated fats, even if kept within the 30-percent limit, can lower HDL cholesterol -- the kind that helps protect against heart attacks -- and can raise the level of triglycerides, the chemical form of most fat in the body.
Still, a diet high in MUFA can have drawbacks. "When people start adding olive oil and other rich sources of monounsaturated fats, maybe they'll run the risk of adding too many calories to their diet," Kris-Etherton says. But she adds that a high-MUFA diet may be a good alternative to a diet that severely restricts fat, for people who can maintain a healthy weight while on it.
"We have to figure out which diet is going to work best for different people," Kris-Etherton says. "It doesn't have to be a low-fat diet for everybody. What is nice about all of this is now we have another option in the prevention and treatment of heart disease."
No matter how healthy you are, make sure you don't consume too many saturated fats, which can raise cholesterol levels, says Alice Lichtenstein, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University and member of the AHA nutrition committee. To decrease saturated fats, buy lean cuts of meat and take advantage of low-fat and nonfat dairy products.
"It may not be exactly what you want, but you can make the substitution and not feel deprived," Lichtenstein says.
It's in the Calories
While Americans have somewhat decreased their saturated fat intake, they have more than made up for the calories in carbohydrate consumption, says Lichtenstein. As a result, the nation is getting heavier, opening the door for health problems such as heart disease and diabetes, which are associated with increased weight.
Lichtenstein explains that avoiding weight gain means taking every calorie into account, remembering that "fat-free" or "low-fat" does not mean "calorie-free." And keeping track of how many of those calories you expend, rather than just how many you consume, is also important in maintaining a healthy weight.
"Some people get so focused on fat that they forget total energy intake," Lichtenstein says. She adds that regular exercise, which allows you to eat more without gaining weight, has been shown to reduce a person's risk of heart attack.
However, these heart-healthy changes shouldn't be viewed as a quick fix. "This type of lifestyle modification isn't like a course of antibiotics," she says. "You don't do it for 10 days and forget about it. It's OK to occasionally skip your morning exercise routine or have prime rib, but this approach has to be for the long term."