Some Big Fat Facts

The fats in the foods we eat play important roles in our bodies, but the facts can be confusing when we are making dietary choices. Maybe the answers to these common questions will clear up misunderstandings about dietary fat and its cousin, cholesterol. I enlisted St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital clinical dietitians Rita Zapien and Brigid McVaugh to help me tackle these often puzzling but important questions.

Will eggs increase my cholesterol?

The USDA recently reviewed egg nutrient data. The average amount of cholesterol in a Grade A large egg is 185 mg. It used to be 213 mg. Like people, hens eat better these days! This means it’s much easier to eat eggs—which are low in saturated fat and high in vitamins and minerals—on a heart healthy diet. For most people, saturated and trans fats influence blood cholesterol much more than dietary cholesterol.

Which is better—butter or margarine?

For limiting saturated fat intake, margarine is better. Both contain the same amount of total fat—11 grams per tablespoon. Butter has more saturated fat, 7 grams compared to 3 grams in regular stick margarine. Trans fat raises cholesterol so, look for margarine with 0 trans fat. Different fats serve different purposes in cooking and baking, so it’s important to consider your overall diet in making your choice. Even a little butter can fit into a heart healthy meal plan.

What type of oil should I use?

Don’t feel you have to choose only one! Remember, all oils are mixtures of saturated and unsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats help lower LDL or “bad” cholesterol. Canola oil, which contains the least saturated fat, is mild-flavored and good for both cooking and baking. Olive oil, which is very high in monounsaturated fat, contains a substance (squalene) which has anti-inflammatory properties and slows clot formation. Its distinctive flavor makes it a staple for Mediterranean cuisines. Nut oils have delicate, subtle flavors and are also high in monounsaturated fats. Flaxseed oil, exceptionally high in ALA, an omega-3 fat, cannot be used in cooking, but is fine for salad dressings.

Type Flavor Saturated fat Uses
Canola Oil Mild + Cooking, baking
Flaxseed Oil Mild + Salad dressing
Olive Oil Distinctive ++ Cooking, salad dressing, dipping
Butter Rich +++++++++ Cooking, baking, spreading

Finally, the question dietitians hate to be asked: Is ___ bad for me? or Is ___ good for me?

People think this is a simple question. No matter what food is the subject of the question, dietitians find it difficult to give a simple answer. The impact of any individual food on your health depends on many factors, including the amount you eat, how often you eat it, how you prepare it and any dietary restrictions you might have. So most Registered Dietitians don’t like to label foods as “good” or “bad” but to look at them in relation to all the foods you eat daily. My own philosophy: you can eat any food you want, but you might not be able to have it as much as you like, or eat it as often as you like.

For even more detailed information about fats, cholesterol, and the heart, visit the nutrition information page on fats and cholesterol in THI’s online Heart Information Center.

Until next time!

Stephanie Coulter, MD