BLUE SPRINGS, Mo. – Simply cutting back on the fat in your diet is not the key to a slimmer waistline and better heart health, notes a University of Missouri Extension nutrition and health education specialist.

“A long-held belief has been that excess calories consumed in high-fat foods are the main culprit behind cardiovascular disease in America,” says Glenda Kinder. “Research over the past few years is painting a different picture.”

Kinder recently participated in a nutrition/health study-abroad tour that examined the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle for clues to why the incidence of heart disease in Mediterranean countries is lower than in the U.S.

“While there are many complex reasons for this difference, the amount and kind of fat in that diet pattern is one of those factors,” Kinder said.

In Italy, the typical diet includes 100 times more olive oil than in the American diet, and the percentage of calories from fat may be as high as 40 percent.

Because olive oil is in abundance in Italy, it is the primary fat consumed there, and very little saturated fat (from animal food sources) is eaten.

Alice Lichtenstein, director of the cardiovascular nutrition laboratory at Tufts University, advises Americans that it is more important to replace saturated and trans fats with unsaturated fats than to eat a really low-fat diet.

“When the focus is on low-fat eating, many people replace saturated fats with processed carbs—lots of low-fat crackers, cookies, chips, etc., or fat-free desserts,” Kinder said. “When manufacturers substantially reduced the fat in foods, they increased either the sodium or sugar to improve taste.” This trade-off can actually increase your risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Recent research strongly suggests that if you reduce saturated and trans fats in your diet and replace those calories with monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) or polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), you can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes.

MUFAs are found in foods like avocados, peanut butter, nuts, seeds, and oils such as olive, canola, peanut and sesame. PUFAs are found in nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils such as safflower, corn and soy.

Omega-3 fatty acids (a PUFA) are found in seafood and are heart-healthy. Their benefits are best if the diet is not too high in omega-6 fatty acids, a PUFA found in nuts, seeds and many processed foods. “So it can be best for your health to cook with the MUFA oils to create an overall balance,” Kinder said.

Decide what oil to buy based on how you will use it. Some oils are better for cooking, others for salad dressings and sauces.

“Keep in mind that even though some oils bring health benefits to our diet, oils are still fat,” she said. “Regardless of where it comes from, one tablespoon of oil has around 120 calories. It could be a healthy fat, but it’s a calorie-dense food and should be eaten in moderation.”

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