Fat is one of the most misunderstood foods. And there are a lot of myths about fat that just won’t die. Here we separate what’s true from what’s not…
TRUE OR FALSE: Saturated fat causes heart disease.
False. An analysis of about 80 studies that involved more than one-half million people found that saturated fat does not increase heart disease risk. The analysis was conducted by a team of international scientists and published in Annals of Internal Medicine.
Even though a diet high in saturated fat raises blood levels of LDL (the so-called “bad” cholesterol), it simultaneously increases levels of beneficial HDL. The ratio of LDL to HDL is more significant than LDL alone.
But isn’t a high-fat diet bad for your weight? Wrong again. Fats may contain more than twice the calories of carbohydrates and protein, but they’re less likely to cause weight gain than, say, a diet high in refined carbohydrates.
This is partly due to satiety—high-fat foods fill you up more quickly than other foods, so you tend to eat less overall. Also, people who cut back on fat tend to replace it with something—and that something typically is carbohydrates that can really pack on the pounds.
TRUE OR FALSE: Oils are more healthful than butter.
False. Olive, canola, soybean and other vegetable oils are good for the heart, but that doesn’t mean that small amounts of butter—or lard, for that matter—are harmful.
The saturated fat in butter and lard doesn’t seem to be a problem, particularly because most people don’t use a lot. Besides, butter and lard have unique cooking qualities. A flaky piecrust? You can’t beat lard or butter!
TRUE OR FALSE: Olive oil is the healthiest fat.
Partly true. Olive oil is high in monounsaturated fatty acids, which reduce both total and LDL cholesterol. Olive oil also contains antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds that can help prevent heart disease and cancer.
Olive oil may be somewhat healthier than polyunsaturated fats (such as soybean oil and canola oil), but the difference isn’t dramatic.
TRUE OR FALSE: Heated olive oil can be toxic.
True. You never want to heat oil beyond its smoke point—the temperature at which an oil starts to smoke. Overheated oils produce acrolein, a compound that has been linked to cancer and other chronic diseases, including heart disease. The best oils for high-heat cooking—searing meats and in stir-fries, for example—are corn, soybean, peanut, palm and sesame oils. Olive, canola and grapeseed oils can handle the moderately high heat used for sautés. The lower smoke-point oils, such as walnut and flaxseed, are mainly used for seasoning salads and other cold dishes.
TRUE OR FALSE: Low-fat dairy helps with weight loss.
Probably false. Whole-milk and full-fat cheeses have more calories than their leaner counterparts, but they are less likely to be associated with weight gain. A study published in the European Journal of Nutrition found that people who consumed whole-milk dairy actually were less likely to be obese than those who avoided it. There also is evidence that some of the bioactive substances in whole milk, such as sphingolipids, protect against cancer and diabetes.
TRUE OR FALSE: Coconut oil is a superfood.
False. Despite claims that coconut oil strengthens immunity, improves thyroid function and prevents heart disease and cancer, there is little evidence to support it. Coconut oil is higher in saturated fat than any other food on the planet (including butter). It is so high in saturated fat that it actually is a solid at room temperature.
Until more studies are in, I would limit coconut oil to small amounts. In small amounts, it is a good choice for curries and other dishes that benefit from a light, slightly sweet flavor.
TRUE OR FALSE: Grilled meat can be harmful.
True. The smoke caused by the combustion of fat dripping onto the coals contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), chemical compounds that have been linked to cancer. That char on meats contains heterocyclic amines, another class of cancer-causing compounds.
Helpful: Dry rubs that contain rosemary and thyme. They reduce the formation of cancer-causing compounds. Also, a recent study found that marinating meat in beer before cooking reduces the formation of PAHs.