by Wayne Parsons

Dietary fats cause high cholesterol levels, which in turn causes plaque formation in heart arteries, increasing heart attacks and strokes, which are the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States. Every 37 seconds a person dies—647,000 each year—from cardiovascular disease, at a cost of $219 billion.

The Ornish Lifestyle Medicine™ Dietary Guidelines, state that fat intake should be 10% of daily calories. Meaning, if you eat 2,000 calories per day, 200 calories can come from fat. One gram of fat has 9 calories, resulting in a goal of 20 to 25 grams of fat per day. A typical fast-food burger will have 35 grams of fat. Reducing fat intake and managing the type of fat in the diet has been shown in scientific studies to reverse the narrowing of coronary arteries, and reduce or eliminate Type 2 diabetes.

Not All Fats Are the Same
Some fats are “saturated” and some are “unsaturated.” The difference involves hydrogen atoms in the fat molecule. For example, when processed food manufacturers add hydrogen to plant-based oils to make them more solid, the ingredient label will say “hydrogenated.” This lets you know the product is highly processed and high in saturated fat.

Saturated fats are unhealthy and primarily come from animals, red meat, chicken skin, dairy products and processed food. Saturated fat is high in cholesterol, which, in addition to causing heart disease, also increases insulin production and contributes to Type 2 diabetes. Fat clogs cell intake pathways and leads to Type 2 diabetes. Reduce the fat and Type 2 diabetes goes away.

Unsaturated fats, whether poly- or mono-unsaturated, generally come from plants, have no, or very little, cholesterol, and cause less harm to the body.

Omega-3 polyunsaturated fats help to maintain good health and have proven health benefits. Eating fish or taking fish oil supplements is a popular way to get Omega-3. Fish don’t produce Omega-3 but instead get it from eating marine algae or plankton, and adding those items as food in a diet will also provide Omega-3. Eating fish is not risk-free: some have high levels of mercury or other toxins, and fish oils often have more cholesterol than is healthy. People on blood thinners should consult their doctor before taking a fish oil supplement.

Choosing a less harmful cooking oil is also important. Butter, lard and all oils, including olive, soy, canola, grape seed, avocado or coconut, are 100% fat. A tablespoon of any oil contains about 15 grams of fat (and remember, your daily goal for fat is no more than 20-25 grams per day). But the characteristics of fat in each oil can vary greatly.

Some plant oils, such as coconut and palm oil, contain mostly saturated fat. For instance, coconut oil is 90% saturated fat while butter is 64% saturated fat.

Trans fats are typically seen in processed food (and you’ll see “hydrogenated” on the label). Cheese and meat also contain trans fats which are unhealthy and should be eliminated from the diet.

When it comes to healthier plant-based oils, there are also differences. Coconut oil is the worst, and the best are canola and olive oil. If a person replaces 30 grams of butter with 30 grams of olive oil, or canola oil, cholesterol and saturated fat will be reduced. But the olive oil contains 14% saturated fat, and canola oil has much less saturated fat. Canola is “healthier” than olive oil, but, again, all oils, are 100% fat, and are not healthy when consumed in amounts above the recommended levels. The amount of healthier oil, still should not exceed 20–25 grams
of fat.

Beyond Butter and Oils
Some foods are high in fat, but have been shown to have some health benefits. Nuts and seeds while high in fat content, have been shown to improve heart health and reduce Type 2 diabetes:

According to Ornish Lifestyle Medicine, several of the largest cohort studies, including the Adventist Study, the Iowa Women’s Health Study, the Nurses’ Health Study, and the Physicians’ Health Study have shown that consuming nuts and seeds correlates with a consistent 30-50% lower risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), myocardial infarction, sudden cardiac death and stroke. Decreased cholesterol has also been associated with eating nuts.

Being smart about food choices and understanding how fat affects health is empowering. That knowledge helps consumers transition to choosing fats that are unsaturated and low in cholesterol, reduce the overall amount of fat consumed, and move forward on the healthiest path possible.