The phrase heart-healthy diet often conjures up images of steamed rice and vegetables, a platter of baked ﬁsh, lots of pasta—easy on the sauce, please—and only dreams of fried onion rings.If you believe, as I do, that a low-fat diet isn’t the way to a healthier heart, there’s another option. This one requires a bit of cutting back, just as traditional low-fat diets do, but it also means consciously adding some fats to your diet. This takes some practice at ﬁrst, but the eﬀort will be well worth it, both in taste and health.
• Cutting back. Avoid trans fats whenever and wherever you can, and limit your intake of saturated fats.
Trans fats are everywhere. Until recently, all vegetable shortenings were packed with trans fats. So were most brands of stick margarine. Some companies now oﬀer brands that are low in saturated fat and are virtually trans fat–free. Unfortunately, the bulk of trans fats that we eat— somewhere around 70 percent—is hidden in commercially baked goods like crackers, muﬃns, and cookies, in other prepared foods, and in fried foods prepared in restaurants.
Until now, the only way you could have found these stealth trans fats was by searching the ingredient list of food labels for the words partially hydrogenated vegetable oils or vegetable shortening or by grilling waiters or cooks while eating out. Now that the FDA is requiring food makers to speciﬁcally list trans fats on food labels, you will be able to see what foods contain them. One source of confusion can be that a product is allowed to proclaim itself as “trans fatty acid–free” if it contains less than one- half gram of trans fat per serving—in this case the label will still say “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.” Don’t be fooled by labels that proclaim a product as cholesterol-free—it can be high in trans fats and contain no cholesterol. In restaurants, foods “cooked in vegetable oil” aren’t necessarily free of trans fats, because these oils may still be heavily hydrogenated.
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Now that fast-food restaurants use heavily hydrogenated vegetable fats for deep frying, they are one of our country’s largest sources of dietary trans fats. Slipping into the double-digit range doesn’t take much eﬀort at all. Eating a doughnut at breakfast and a large order of French fries for lunch or dinner represents just under 5 percent of total calories for someone whose usual diet contains two thousand calories.
Limiting saturated fats in your diet basically means going easy on, or avoiding, red meat and whole-fat dairy products. It isn’t worth making yourself crazy to eliminate all traces of saturated fat from your diet. For one thing, that’s almost impossible to do, since the sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats also contain some saturated fat. For another, as the Lyon Diet Heart Study and others have shown, eating saturated fats in the right proportion with unsaturated fats is perfectly ﬁne. Try to keep your saturated fat intake below 8 percent of calories, or around 17 grams a day. That’s the amount in seven pats of butter, one Pizza Hut Personal Pan Pizza, or three glasses of regular milk.
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It isn’t necessary to count fat grams or whip out a calculator to compute percentage of calories from fat. You have better things to do with your time, the payoﬀ is very small, and so far there’s no solid evidence for adopting exact numerical goals for total fat intake. It does make sense to know what is in the foods you eat, or plan to eat, so you can make healthy choices. But I don’t recommend keeping precise tallies all day long.
• Adding in. Once you have a handle on the saturated and trans fats in your diet, you’ll ﬁnd there are plenty of easy and delicious ways to replace them with unsaturated fats. The healthiest mix of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats hasn’t yet been determined. For now, a combination of these is a good strategy and gives you plenty of ﬂexibility in your diet.