Flustered by fat? Sort fact from fiction


June 14, 1994|By Colleen Pierre, R.D. | Colleen Pierre, R.D.,Special to The Sun

Heart disease is still the No. 1 killer of Americans. It's No. 1 for all men, and No. 1 for all women.

Lots of people have caught on to that and have quit smoking and improved eating and exercise habits, based on recommendations from our nation's experts.

So it's disconcerting when something like the margarine/transfatty acid story roars into the headlines. It often makes us feel confused and helpless. And it creates a backlash against taking responsibility for our own health. That's why it's important to keep the relative risks in perspective.

Dr. Walter Willett from the Harvard School of Public Health grabbed a lot of headlines. His American Journal of Public Health article pointed out that hydrogenated vegetable oils found in margarine and commercial baked goods may not be any more heart-healthy than the butter and palm oil they replaced. In fact, he says, they may be even harder on your heart, because they raise the bad LDL and lower the good HDL, exactly the opposite of what we're trying to achieve.

Dr. Willett could be right. He cited several studies to make his point. He also expressed concern that the chemical compounds formed during hydrogenation do not occur naturally in nature and have never been tested for safety. This certainly deserves further study.

But just how big a risk is this?

Sara Parks, president of the American Dietetic Association, says: "What's known, after extensive scientific research, is that a diet high in fat increases the risk for a number of diseases. . . . The fact is, transfats provide just 2 to 3 percent of total calories, while total fat accounts for 36 percent of calories in a typical diet. By reducing fat intake to the recommended level of no more than 30 percent [with calories from transfatty acids falling accordingly], Americans can reduce the health risks posed by all types of fat."

Another part of the problem is that we like the crispy, crunchy texture of crackers, popcorn and chips that can only be achieved with some kind of saturated fat. The International Food Information Council points out that, in the mid-1980s, the food industry responded to recommendations from health authorities and consumers to reduce the amount of saturated animal fats and tropical oils in the food supply. Often, the best available alternative, as far as anyone knew, was partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, which contain transfats.

Clearly, two things are needed here . . . more research, and more personal responsibility in making food choices. While some folks have drastically cut fat (a few perhaps too much), others still need to make some improvements.

Here are some painless ways to reduce total fat, saturated fats and transfats in your diet.

* Replace half the cookies and cake in your diet with fresh fruit.

* Replace half the potato chips, french fries, commercially popped corn, bread sticks and snack crackers with crunchy raw vegetables, such as carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, zucchini, yellow squash, sweet potato slices and red or green bell peppers.

* Cut your margarine or butter in half. Then replace half the remaining margarine or butter with olive or canola oil, which are high in monounsaturated fat, low in saturated fat and devoid of transfats. Olive oil is considered heart-healthy because it's been used for centuries in Mediterranean countries, which have extremely low rates of heart disease.

* When you do use margarine, choose the soft tub or squeezable kind. They're the lowest in transfats.

* Read the new Nutrition Facts label on the products you buy.

* If you want to cut transfats even further, read the ingredients list and cut back on foods that contain hydrogenated vegetable oils.

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant to the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorst & Associates in Baltimore.

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