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Fats and Oils in the Diet: The Great Debate

Fat is a hot topic. For well over a decade, the attention of health experts and consumers has focused on issues related to fat and cholesterol. The evidence is clear that a lower total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol diet reduces the risk of chronic health problems, such as heart disease, some types of cancer, diabetes, and obesity. However, the debate continues about how much and what type of fat to consume. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the type of fat is just as important as the total amount of fat you eat.

Know your fats

Fats that are solid at room temperature are mostly saturated fat. Animal products, such as beef, pork, poultry, whole milk, cheese, sour cream, and yogurt, as well as coconut, palm and palm kernel oils, contain mostly saturated fats. Saturated fats can increase blood cholesterol levels. Higher levels of blood cholesterol increase the risk of heart disease. Fats and oils that are liquid at room temperature are mostly unsaturated, either monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. Examples of monounsaturated fats are canola, olive, and peanut oils. Corn, soybean, and sunflower oils are high in polyunsaturated fats. Foods that contain mostly unsaturated fats include avocado, olives, and peanuts. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, have a blood-cholesterol-lowering effect and can lower the risk of heart disease. Reducing total fat and replacing some saturated fat with unsaturated fats can help lower your risk of heart disease.

The good and the bad

Ideally, the following blood lipids should be within normal ranges: total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, and triglycerides. LDL is known as "bad cholesterol" because it deposits fats and cholesterol on the lining of arteries. HDL is called "good cholesterol" because it carries the fat and cholesterol away. Ask a registered dietitian or your physician about your blood lipids to see if you are at risk for heart disease.

What is the "fats and oils debate"?

Nutrition experts are concerned that some people are cutting dietary fat too drastically. That is, they’re choosing eating patterns that are too low in fat and too high in carbohydrate, especially simple sugars. While very low fat diets lower total cholesterol and LDL levels, they also lower the beneficial HDL levels and may raise blood triglycerides, which is not desirable. Also, calorie intake may still be too high, leading to obesity, another risk factor for heart disease.

Researchers are finding that if you replace some saturated fat with monounsaturated fat, LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol are lowered without decreasing HDL cholesterol levels or raising triglyceride levels.

Calories still count

Too many calories from any source--fat, carbohydrate, or protein--can lead to weight gain, even if the diet is low in fat. Be sure to check the number of calories per serving on nutrition facts labels when you choose foods. A registered dietitian can determine the right calorie intake for you and tailor a healthful eating and physical activity plan to meet your individual needs.

The Bottom Line

Follow the Food Guide Pyramid to choose a healthful eating pattern. Select a wide variety of foods, include complex carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain products, replace some saturated fat with mono- or polyunsaturated fat and enjoy regular physical activity.

Peanutty Vegetable Medley 

8 ounces couscous, rice, or pasta
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
8 ounces tomato sauce
1/2 cup water
2 teaspoons chili powder
2 & 1/2 pound head of cauli-flower, broken into florets
2 carrots, cut into 1/2-inch slices
1 green pepper, sliced
1/2 cup regular or reduced-fat creamy peanut butter

Cook couscous, rice, or pasta and keep warm. In a large saucepan, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic and cook 3-5 minutes, stirring often. Stir in rest of ingredients except peanut butter and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer 15 minutes. Stir in peanut butter and simmer 5 minutes longer, covered. Serve over couscous, pasta, or rice. Optional: Sprinkle with chopped peanuts.

Makes 4 servings.

Each serving (using couscous) provides 419 calories, 12 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat, 10 grams unsaturated fat, 65 grams carbohydrates, 17 grams protein, 12 grams fiber, 535 mg sodium, 0 mg cholesterol. 

For more information
The American Dietetic Association/National Center for Nutrition and Dietetics.
For food and nutrition information and a referral to a registered dietitian in your area, call the Consumer Nutrition Hot Line at 800/366-1655. For customized answers to your nutrition questions, call 900/CALL-AN-RD (900/225-5267). The cost of the call will be $1.95 for the first minute and $.95 for each additional minute.

The Peanut Institute
For information about how peanuts and peanut products fit into a healthful eating pattern, call toll-free 888/8PEANUT, or write to The Peanut Institute, PO Box 70157, Albany, GA 31708. World Wide Web address:

This fact sheet is supported by a grant from the Peanut Institute. Acceptance of this grant does not constitute an endorsement by ADA of any company’s products or services.

ŠADAF 1998
Reproduction of this fact sheet is permitted for educational purposes. Reproduction for sales purposes is not authorized.

The American Dietetic Association
216 West Jackson Boulevard
Chicago, Illinois 60606-6995
FAX: 312/899-1979