Nutrition news: The skinny on fats

For years, we have heard to eat low-fat or fat-free foods. Now, we hear about "healthy" fats in avocados, olive and salmon. What's the bottom line?     Knowing the difference between saturated, trans, polyunsaturated (omega-3s and omega-6s), and monounsaturated (omega-9s) fats is key to choosing a well-balanced diet.

Saturated and trans fats are the fats to choose less often. That's because these fats can negatively affect your health by increasing "bad" cholesterol (LDL), decreasing "good" cholesterol (HDL) and increasing the risk of developing coronary heart disease. Bad cholesterol can clog arteries and good cholesterol can help clear arteries. With the exception of artificially made trans fats, saturated and trans fats don't need to be completely cut out, just consumed in moderation. The American Heart Association suggests that Americans eat 1 percent or less of their calories from trans fat and 7 percent or less from saturated fats.

Saturated and trans fats are found in many foods, including animal products, doughnuts, potato chips, margarines and shortenings. To find out whether a food has trans fat, watch for the term "partially hydrogenated oils" in the ingredients list.

Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats -- also called omegas -- are considered good fats. They can positively affect your health by improving cholesterol levels, reducing your risk of heart attack, stroke, and diabetes, aiding in fat-soluble vitamin absorption (vitamins A, D, E and K), helping cell development and healthy nerve activity and by keeping the immune system healthy.

The American Heart Association recommends adults 19 years and older consume 20 percent to 35 percent of total calories from fat. The key is to consume the main portion from the good, or healthy fats.

Omega-3 sources include oils such as canola, flax and soybean, walnuts, fish -- such as herring, mackerel, salmon and tuna -- algae, and Omega-3 eggs.

Omega-6 sources include oils such as canola, corn, olive, peanut, safflower, soybean and sunflower; nuts such as almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, pistachios and walnuts; eggs and dairy.

Omega-9 sources include oils such as canola, olive, peanut, sunflower, safflower; nuts such as almonds, cashews, macadamias, peanuts, pecans, pistachios, hazelnuts and walnuts; avocados; eggs; dairy; meat and poultry.

The bottom line is you should choose most of your fats from the good omegas, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and choose less of the saturated and trans fats.

Q and A

Q. I have started noticing more coconut oil at the grocery store and have heard it is better for you than a lot of other oils. Is that true?

A. I've also noticed that coconut oil seems to be catching on these days. Coconut oil is about 90 percent saturated fat, which is a higher percentage than butter (about 64 percent saturated fat), beef fat (40 percent), or even lard (also 40 percent). Too much saturated fat in the diet is unhealthy because it raises "bad" LDL cholesterol levels, which increases the risk of heart disease. So it would seem that coconut oil would be bad news for our hearts.

But what's interesting about coconut oil is that it also gives "good" HDL cholesterol a boost. Fat in the diet, whether it's saturated or unsaturated, tends to nudge HDL levels up, but coconut oil seems to be especially potent at doing so.

Saturated fat is divided into various types, based on the number of carbon atoms in the molecule, and about half of the saturated fat in coconut oil is the 12-carbon variety, called lauric acid. That is a higher percentage than in most other oils, and is probably responsible for the unusual HDL effects of coconut oil. But plant-based oils are more than just fats. They contain many antioxidants and other substances, so their overall effects on health can't be predicted just by the changes in LDL and HDL.

Coconut is a wonderful flavor and there's no problem using coconut oil occasionally. Coconut oil is solid at room temperature, so cooks are experimenting with using it instead of butter or vegetable shortening to make pie crust and other baked goods that require a solid source of fat. And if you're preparing a Thai dish, cooking with coconut oil may be essential.

But, for now, I'd use coconut oil sparingly. Most of the research so far has consisted of short-term studies to examine its effect on cholesterol levels. We don't really know how coconut oil affects heart disease. And I don't think coconut oil is as healthful as vegetable oils like olive oil and soybean oil, which are mainly unsaturated fat and therefore both lower LDL and increase HDL. Coconut oil's special HDL-boosting effect may make it "less bad" than the high saturated fat content would indicate, but it's still probably not the best choice among the many available oils to reduce the risk of heart disease. -- Dr. Walter C. Willett, Harvard School of Public Health.


Oat bran -- from oatmeal and oats -- appear to help lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease, as well as adding fiber to your diet. Oats also have plenty of vitamins -- B1, B2 and E and are low in calories. Here's a new recipe for oatmeal from Cooking Light's "Best Ever Test Kitchen Secrets."

Spiced Fruity Oatmeal

1 1/2 cups apple juice

1/2 cup water

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 1/3 cups regular or old-fashioned oats (not instant)

1/4 cup sweetened dried cranberries or raisins

1/4 cup 1 percent low-fat milk

1 tablespoon brown sugar

3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

2 tablespoons chopped walnuts

Combine first 3 ingredients in a medium saucepan; bring to a boil. Stir in oats and cranberries; reduce heat, and simmer 4 minutes stirring occasionally. Stir in milk, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg; cook 1 minute. Spoon into bowls; sprinkle with walnuts. Yield: 4 servings (serving size: 3/4 cup oatmeal and 1 1/2 teaspoons walnuts).

Per serving; 212 calories, 5.8 grams protein, 38.9 grams carbohydrates, 4.2 grams fat, 1 milligram cholesterol, 3.7 grams fiber, 86 milligrams sodium.

Charlyn Fargo is a registered dietitian with Hy-Vee in Springfield, Ill, and a spokesperson for the Illinois Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.  For comments or questions, contact her at or follow her on Twitter @NutritionRD. To find out more about Charlyn Fargo and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at