Standing in the butter and margarine aisle of the supermarket trying to decide which to buy can get overwhelming. While this is just one of many choices you make about dietary fats on a typical grocery trip, you also make dietary fat decisions when you buy cooking oil and foods that contain fats, such as animal products, packaged foods, bakery products, nuts and seeds. Here are some helpful factors to consider.
• Butter. Although new research suggests butter may not be as harmful to heart health as once thought, the American Heart Association still advises limiting your intake of saturated fat (SF), which butter contains. One easy way to trim SF yet still enjoy butter on your bread is to buy whipped butter, which has air beaten into it and thus about half the fat and calories of butter in sticks.
• Margarine, shortening and spreads. Skip stick margarine and vegetable shortening (in baked goods you either make or buy), which frequently contain man-made trans fat (TF). TF is now deemed the most harmful fat for cardiovascular health and is on the FDA chopping block as an ingredient that may be banned from future use in processed foods. Tub margarine spreads are often free of TF, but check for partially hydrogenated oils (the code word for TF) in the ingredient list. This will catch TF amounts smaller than 0.5 grams per serving, which manufacturers are still allowed to round down to zero on the nutrition label. (Also check for and avoid partially hydrogenated oil in packaged foods, such as ready-to-spread frosting and frozen pies.)
Spreads typically contain preservatives and stabilizers, and most are made with genetically modified (GMO) oil, a controversial practice that artificially alters plant genes.
“Traditional plant-breeding techniques are a lot safer than genetic engineering,” says Glenn Lawrence, PhD, a biochemist and lipids expert at Long Island University in Brooklyn, New York. “When you start playing around with a plant’s genetic makeup using laboratory techniques, it can result in unexpected alterations in plant genes that could be harmful to us.”
Earlier this year, one major producer of buttery spreads started using non-GMO oil and promotes this fact on its packages. For baking, choose spreads with at least 60 percent oil rather than light spreads, which contain less fat and may not produce desired results.
• Liquid oils. Health organizations recommend we get the majority of our dietary fat from monounsaturated fat (MUFA), which supports heart health. Both olive oil and avocado oil, and the foods from which they’re derived, contain about 70 percent MUFA and are smart choices for cooking, baking, salads, and vegetable toppings. Opt for extra virgin (unrefined) versions of these oils because they’re higher in beneficial plant compounds, such as polyphenol antioxidants and vitamin E, according to Penny Kris-Etherton, PhD, RD, distinguished professor of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University.
Canola oil is also high in MUFA, but the majority of canola oil is GMO, so opt for organic versions (which aren’t allowed to contain GMOs) if that concerns you. Other common vegetable oils, including soybean and corn oils, are also typically GMO (and organic options are uncommon), plus they’re higher in polyunsaturated fat (PUFA), particularly the omega-6 kind. Replacing saturated fat with MUFA or PUFA can help lower cholesterol.
“However, you should not go overboard swapping omega-6 PUFA for saturated fat, because excess omega-6 fat can be pro-inflammatory,” Lawrence says. PUFA is also more vulnerable to undesirable oxidation in the body, but consuming plenty of antioxidants in your diet from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains alleviates this concern, Kris-Etherton says.
• Fish and animal products. Aim to eat at least two 4-ounce servings per week of oily fish, such as salmon, tuna and sardines. Such fish are high in heart-healthy omega-3 PUFA, which include EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosapentaenoic acid). Chicken and turkey are also smart protein choices, but to minimize fat and reduce calories, opt for skinless, breast meat. You can also use two egg whites in place of a whole egg to reduce fat and calories (and cholesterol).
We’ve long been advised to limit red meats and choose lean cuts because of their SF content. It’s now known that stearic acid, one of the saturated fats in red meat (and prevalent in chocolate), doesn’t raise cholesterol, although other fats in red meat do. If you can afford to pay a bit more for beef, consider buying grass-fed beef, which contains more stearic acid (in lieu of other SF) and double the omega-3s of typical grain-fed beef. Milk, cheese, and yogurt from grass-fed cows also offer more omega-3s; these dairy products are becoming more available, though they are more costly. If that’s not an option, simply shop for reduced-fat dairy products.
• Nuts and seeds. Most nuts, including hazelnuts, almonds, and macadamia nuts, are highest in healthful MUFA compared to other types of fat. Walnuts and walnut oil are higher in PUFA, part of which is a plant form of omega-3 fats called ALA (alpha linolenic acid), which the body can convert in small amounts to heart-healthy EPA. Seeds, such as flaxseed (when ground) and hemp seed, also supply ALA.