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The low-down on fats: Low fat vs. high fat

Most of us have heard of the Atkins diet. It shuns carbohydrates and promotes fats and proteins in unlimited quantities. Taken to the extreme, this ultimate high-fat diet encourages steak, bacon, cheese and butter and discourages all grains, fruits and vegetables.

The latest news headlines about the battle between carbs and fats imply the Atkins approach is healthy.

But common sense tells us this isn’t reasonable. Eating pork rinds is simply not better than eating a tomato. So it’s not about whether you eat low or high fat, but whether you eat SMART fats.

Smart fats are unsaturated. This means they are liquid at room temperature and come from vegetarian sources like olive oil, grape seed oil, the oils in nuts and seeds, flax and chia and avocados. The research is overwhelming that consuming unsaturated fats from whole foods is healthful.

Unsaturated fats promote higher HDL (good) cholesterol levels, lower triglycerides, and lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. Their consumption is also associated with lower inflammation, improved vascular tone and mild blood thinning. In summary – unsaturated fats are what you would want to eat to optimize cardiovascular health. So these are fats you don’t have to worry about or limit in your diet.

The fats you should be cautious about are saturated fats. These are naturally solid at room temperature and come from animal sources. These are the favorites of Atkins followers and include the marbling in beef, the fat in chicken, bacon and cheese. These fats have not proven to be protective against heart disease and have a variable effect on the cholesterol profile. That does not mean you can never eat another piece of steak. But if you do eat animal based fats, make sure they are of the highest quality possible and that you consume them less frequently and in reasonable amounts. And surround those fat with healthy sides. So if you’re going to eat a steak, choose a salad or steamed vegetables instead of hash browns.

The fats that should never cross your lips are trans fats. Trans fats are fats that used to be liquid at room temperature but are now solid due to the chemical process of hydrogenation. Trans fats are listed on ingredient labels as “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oils — often soybean or corn oils. These fats made their way into our foods because they are inexpensive to produce and have a long shelf life, making them ideal for processed items. But they are very counterproductive to health. Trans fats have been shown to raise LDL, lower HDL and increase inflammatory markers. There are no known safe limits for consuming trans fats, so avoiding them entirely should be your goal. But please beware that front-of-the-box claims can be misleading as anything containing less than 0.5g of trans fat per serving can legally call itself “trans fat free”.

Clearly not all fats are created equal (and there’s something very wrong with labeling rules). 

So before you fall for the latest headline, remember that common sense always wins out. Our bodies do need fat to function properly, but they also need fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants which can only come from carbohydrates, specifically grains, fruits and vegetables.

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