Figuring out fat can be frustrating.
In recent years, we’ve learned that there are good fats, bad fats and really bad fats. We’ve loaded up on avocados, salmon and olive oil, yet we’re still perplexed by how many almonds we should eat in a day.
Meanwhile, the national conversation has switched from fats to carbs and sugar. Do we still need to worry about gobbling French fries and a greasy burger?
The short answer: Yes.
There are basically four types of fats: monounsaturated, polyunsatured, saturated and transfats. The mono and poly types are unsaturated and tend to be like vegetable oil. Saturated are bad fats; trans fats are the really bad fats.
“Trans fats are the fats you get in processed and preserved foods, like TV dinners, potato chips, cookies and other sweet foods,’’ said Dr. Jeffrey Lin, a cardiologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach. “We know that trans fats are really bad for your heart. They actually increase the bad cholesterol and they decrease the good cholesterol in our bodies. They have definitely been shown to lead to heart disease later on.”
Most trans fats are formed through a manufacturing process that adds hydrogen to vegetable oil, which causes the oil to become solid at room temperature. Partially hydrogenated oil has a longer shelf life, which makes it more economical for companies. Look for the term partially hydrogenated oil on food labels.
“Anything with hydrogenated oil has trans fats,” said Lillian Craggs-Dino, a registered dietitian at Cleveland Clinic in Weston. “Stay away from trans fats. They’re the super, super ugly fats.”
The USDA determined in 2015 that hydrogenated oils are not “generally recognized as safe,” giving food manufacturers three years to remove them from their products. But they can still be found in baked goods, ready-made frosting, canned dough for biscuits, frozen pizza crusts, chips, fried foods, coffee creamers and margarine.
Figuring out whether a product has any trans fats can be tricky, said Lucette Talamas, a registered dietitian with Baptist Health South Florida. In the U.S., if a food has fewer than 0.5 grams of trans fat in a serving, the label can read 0 grams trans fats. But people often eat more than one serving or may choose multiple foods with hidden trans fats. It all adds up.
Saturated fats aren’t great either.
“Saturated fats come from red meat and we also get them from dairy products,” Lin said. “ Saturated fats raise bad cholesterol but they don’t do much to the good cholesterol. They tend to have less of a bad effect on your heart.”
Most nutrition experts recommend limiting total fat per day to between 20 to 30 percent of our daily calories, with only a small percentage coming from saturated fats.
“What we will tell patients is to try to avoid trans fats altogether and with saturated fats, try to minimize,” he said. “You should try to replace what you normally eat as saturated fats with good fats.”
And that means eating lots of fruits and vegetables, beans and nuts, fish and lean chicken instead of red meats.
“We should try to avoid animal fat as much as possible,” said Dr. Alvaro Gomez, a cardiologist at Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute, Baptist Health South Florida.
Also watch out for coconut oil, a product that “has become in vogue, but it’s over 70 percent saturated fat,” said registered dietitian Sonia Angel, coordinator of the Diabetes & Nutrition Center at Memorial Regional Hospital.
There are two types of healthy fats — polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. Polyunsaturated fats are known for their omega-3 fatty acids in foods like fatty fish, walnuts and flax seeds. Omega-3 fats are “kind of the WD-40 for our bodies,” Angel said.
“These are good for your heart in terms of preventing heart disease for the future, and they actually have good effects for your cholesterol levels,” Lin said.
“If you eat fish on a regular basis, you’ll get a good amount of omega-3 beneficial to you,” he said.
When you dip your bread in olive oil or slice open an avocado, you’re getting mostly monounsaturated fat.
Olive oil and other monounsaturated fats, found in the “Mediterranean Diet,” got a boost from a study by the New England Journal of Medicine in 2013 that found eating the oil, fruits, nuts and vegetables is beneficial in preventing cardiovascular problems.
Still, you don’t want to soak everything you eat in olive oil. “Always be mindful of portion size,” Talamas said. “Even if it’s a good fat.”
The 5 worst foods for your heart
▪ French fries: They’re full of fat and loaded with salt, which increases blood pressure.
▪ Doughnuts: They’re high in calories with loads of sugar and saturated fat. Avoid them!
▪ Processed meats: Sausages, hot dogs, bacon, salami and other processed meats “are loaded with fat and bad for your heart,” said Sonia Angel, coordinator of the Diabetes & Nutrition Center at Memorial Regional Hospital. They also have damaging sodium and preservatives.
▪ Ramen noodle soup: “College kids love this, but it’s not good for your heart,” said Dr. Ana Victoria Soto, a cardiologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach. Inexpensive, instant varieties are “swimming in salt.”
▪ Soda: Not a food, but the sugary drink has a lot to do with our obesity epidemic. Said Soto: “It’s poison.”