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Originally published Wednesday, January 16, 2013 at 5:00 AM

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The skinny on heart-healthy fats

When you’re pushing your shopping cart down the supermarket aisle, how do you know which cooking fat to select for heart health? This lesson in Fats 101 tells you where to start.

Environmental Nutrition

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When you’re pushing your shopping cart down the supermarket aisle, how do you know which cooking fat to select for heart health? Your choices are endless, from bottles of green olive oil and golden corn oil, to tubs of margarine and sticks of butter. However, some fats are clearly much better for your heart than others.

Fats 101

Dietary fats are a class of nutrients that include specific fatty acids, such as polyunsaturated fat (PUFA), monounsaturated fat (MUFA), saturated fat (SF) and trans fat (TF). Though fat is a very concentrated source of energy — with 9 calories per gram (g), compared to carbohydrates and protein at 4 calories per gram — research now indicates that it’s not how much fat you eat that’s important for heart health — it’s what type. PUFAs and MUFAs have been linked with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, because they can decrease your cholesterol levels. On the contrary, SFs are associated with increased total and “bad” LDL cholesterol and a greater risk of heart disease. Artificially manufactured TF is a fat with no redeeming value; it’s been linked with higher LDL and total cholesterol levels and heart disease risk.

In the bottle

How do these numbers translate to your favorite fat for cooking? Turn to a liquid vegetable oil with high MUFA content, suggests Janet Bond Brill, Ph.D., R.D., L.D.N., author of “Prevent a Second Heart Attack: 8 Foods, 8 Weeks to Reverse Heart Disease.” She explains, “The number one fat in the kitchen is MUFA: extra virgin olive oil in cooking, slathered on veggies and dressing on salads. MUFAs raise the ‘good’ HDL cholesterol and lower the ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol. They stabilize the LDL particles, shielding them from free radical attack, hence preventing oxidation — the initial step in the atherosclerotic process. Extra virgin olive oil is the only oil, because it’s a fruit oil and not a seed oil, that is packed with disease-fighting polyphenols — another bonus of making it your main fat.”

Whole plant fats in the kitchenDon’t forget to turn to nature’s original healthy fats — whole plant foods. Nut and seed butters and avocados are particularly rich in MUFAs and PUFAs. Try stirring nut or seed butters, such as peanut butter or tahini (sesame seed paste) into a stir-fry, sauce, vinaigrette or dip. Mix mashed avocado or nut butter into baked goods.

A fat for all culinary needs

When you don’t want the ‘olive’ taste of olive oil to flavor your foods, try other high-MUFA fats, such as canola oil, which offers a very neutral flavor and is great in baking breads, muffins, bars and pancakes. Peanut oil can introduce a nice fat profile into your diet, as well as a mild, peanut flavor which accents Asian dishes.

Recommendations for fat

— Aim for 20 to 35 percent of your total calories (44 to 78 g for the average person) from total fat. Make most of those fats: MUFAs, found in avocados, peanut butter, nuts, seeds, olives and vegetable oils; and PUFAs, found in nuts, seeds and vegetable oils.

— Limit saturated fat — found in meat, poultry, full fat dairy, butter and tropical oils like coconut and palm kernel oil — to 10 percent of total calories (22 g on average) and even further to 7 percent (16 g per day on average) for optimal health.

— Avoid artificially produced trans fat, found in stick margarine, processed foods and deep-fried foods.

Environmental Nutrition is the award-winning independent newsletter written by nutrition experts dedicated to providing readers up-to-date, accurate information about health and nutrition in clear, concise English. For more information, visit www.environmentalnutrition.com.

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