Are You Drowning in Corn Oil?

Are You Drowning in Corn Oil?

Find out why too much of this kind of unsaturated fat can put you at risk.

Have you pushed aside the butter dish and switched to the tubs of trans-fat-free margarine? Have you kicked lard to the curb, choosing now to brown, saute and bake with corn or vegetable oil? Many of us are resting easy in the knowledge that as long as we eat mostly the good kinds of fat—meaning unsaturated fats—our hearts are probably in the clear, right?

Not so. Merely switching to unsaturated fats is not the only key to healthful fat consumption. The latest research shows that if you're not paying attention to the kinds of unsaturated fats you choose or to how much you get of certain kinds of unsaturated fats in comparison to others, you may be leaving the door wide open to health hazards on par with killers like heart disease.

The old facts on fats
Some things haven't changed. As with other foods, if you are eating too much fat, regardless of the kind, and are not expending a similar number of calories, you're risking weight problems and all of the related health complications.

But there are many good things fat can do for you. Dietary fat is a necessary part of maintaining energy levels, and it provides the body with essential fatty acids that it cannot produce on its own. Dietary fats aid in nutrient absorption, make foods more palatable and help you feel sated. They also assist the body in the production of substances that are essential for immune function, tissue repair and prostaglandin production.

Fat is still part of a healthful diet, so it's important to know what kind of fat you are eating and to stick with mostly unsaturated fats.

Quick refresher: Do you know where to find unsaturated fats? Answer this question to find out.

Q: You are having a bagel for breakfast. Which kind of spread contains mostly unsaturated fats?

  1. peanut butter
  2. butter
  3. cream cheese
  4. none of the above

A: The correct answer is: "peanut butter." Of the above choices, peanut butter is the only spread that is not high in saturated fats. Peanut butter is rich in unsaturated fat. But do you know which kind of unsaturated fat peanut butter mostly contains? Or whether it's better for you than other kinds of unsaturated fats? Answer the next question to learn more...

Q: You are whipping up an omelet for your family with toast on the side. You're using eggs from flaxseed-fed chickens, trans fat-free margarine in the frying pan and peanut butter on the toast. Which of those foods is richest in a type of unsaturated fat known as omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids?

  1. the margarine
  2. the peanut butter
  3. the eggs in the omelet

A: The correct answer is: the margarine. Just like peanut butter, margarine contains mostly unsaturated fat. However, margarine is the only item in this list that tends to be very high in omega-6 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat.

Eggs contain mostly saturated and monounsaturated fats, as well as a bit of polyunsaturated fat, but far less in comparison to margarine.

Why should I pay attention to Omega-6?
Unfortunately, research suggests that most people are getting far too much omega-6 in their diets and far too little of another type of polyunsaturated fat called omega-3. And, although omega-6 is a healthful fat, getting too much omega-6 without enough omega-3 to balance it out appears to promote a variety of health ills, including insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, inflammatory processes and the kind of cell-damaging oxidation that's associated with aging and damage to cells and DNA. All of this could eventually open the door to serious conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Scientists estimate that our ancestor's dietary ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids was probably something close to 1/1 or 1/2. Today, the ratio in the typical Western diet is estimated to be anywhere from 20/1 to 30/1. This means that, even if a person is eating a relatively low-fat diet, he or she is probably getting a disproportionately high amount of omega-6 compared to other healthful fats.

Where can you get more omega-3s? Read on . . .

Best bets for omega-3s
Q: You're looking to add a dose of healthy omega-3 fats to your diet today. What should you do?

  1. dress your salad with a dressing made with olive oil
  2. snack on a serving of popcorn popped in safflower oil
  3. have a serving of wild salmon at lunch or dinner

A: The correct answer is: have a serving of wild salmon at lunch or dinner. Oily fish from cold-water climates, such as salmon, are typically good sources of omega-3 fats. (Safflower oil is rich in omega-6 fats; olive oil is an excellent source of monounsaturated fats that also fight disease but contains no omega-3 fats.)

Keep in mind, however, that omega-3 levels can vary greatly in fish depending upon where it came from. It's often difficult to know exactly how much omega-3 fats fish contain, regardless of whether it's wild or farmed. Check the chart at right to see which fish provides your best chance of a healthy dose of omega-3s.

Also, before you choose your fish, find out the typical methylmercury levels for various fish from the FDA.

If you don't eat fish, a backup plan for getting your omega-3s is to take fish oil supplements. As a good starting point, some experts recommend 500 milligrams per day from a supplement containing EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)—two important forms of omega-3. (Ultimately, fish oil supplement intake should not exceed 2 grams per day.)

Beyond fish oils
Now, you know one of the best sources of omega-3s is fish and fish oils. But it doesn't stop there.

Certain plants and their oils contain omega-3s, too. Do you know which ones? Answer the next question to find out.

Q: You're looking for a supplement that may boost your heart health. Which one of the following does not contain omega-3s?

  1. flaxseed oil
  2. fish oil
  3. evening primrose oil

A: The correct answer is: evening primrose oil. This oil is rich in omega-6 fats, the kind of polyunsaturated fat most people get a disproportionate amount of. What's more, primrose oil should not be taken as a supplement because research is lacking regarding its benefits.

Both flaxseed oil and fish oil supplements can serve as dietary sources of omega-3 fatty acids, the kind of polyunsaturated fat that most people get too little of and which is associated with heart health. However, fish oil supplements appear to have an advantage over flaxseed oils because the omega-3s contained within fish oils are more readily available to the body. Purslane is another plant that contains omega-3 fats.

But it's not only about bumping up your intake of omega-3s. You also should make an effort to reduce omega-6s in your diet. Answer the next question to find out about other foods that are highest in omega-6 fats.

Q: You are baking some brownies. Which of the recipe's ingredients is least likely to overload you with too much omega-6 fats?

  1. the fats in the corn oil
  2. the fats in the dark baking chocolate
  3. the fats in the shortening used to grease the pan

A: The correct answer is: the fats in the dark baking chocolate. Most of the ingredients in this list, when used in moderation in your diet as a whole, are fine to eat. However, corn oil and shortening are rich in omega-6 fats, the polyunsaturated kind that already makes up a large part of people's fat intake.

Cocoa and dark chocolate appear to have heart-healthy properties. Although chocolate contains some saturated fat, it is in the form of stearic acid, a kind of saturated fat that leaves cholesterol levels alone.

Avoid overloading on omega-6s by substituting applesauce for corn oil when baking brownies and using non-stick baking spray in the pan.

Pureed prunes can be substituted for up to three-quarters of the shortening in chocolaty recipes, such as pastries or cookies. Banana puree can be used for some of the oil in muffins or carrot cake.

What about monounsaturated fat?
All this talk of omega-3 and omega-6—two kinds of polyunsaturated fat—leaves out a very important unsaturated fat from the equation: monounsaturated fat. Monounsaturated fat remains one of your best health choices when it comes to including fat in your diet. If you choose an oil that is rich in monounsaturated fat, or has roughly equal amounts of omega-3 and omega-6, you're doing your health a favor.

Where can you get your monounsaturated fat? Answer the next question to find out.

Q: You're sauteing vegetables to eat with your dinner. Which of the following unsaturated fat sources is your best choice?

  1. canola oil
  2. olive oil
  3. sunflower oil
  4. any of the above

A: The correct answer is: olive oil. Sunflower oil is another kind of polyunsaturated fat rich in the omega-6s that most people tend to overload on. Both canola oil and olive oil are high in monounsaturated fat. Getting most of your dietary fat from monounsaturated fats is still good for your health, and it doesn't appear to matter which kind of monounsaturated fat you get.

However, there is less research behind canola oil than there is behind olive oil. Also, the way canola oil is produced creates byproducts that may have negative health impacts, so olive oil remains your best bet.

Aside from monounsaturated-rich oils, oils that have comparable amounts of omega-3s and omega-6s are the next best choice. A recent four-year study shows just how important the balance of these two fats is.

Patients who decreased their consumption of omega-6 fats while increasing their intake of omega-3 fats cut in half the incidence of heart disease and cancer deaths over the next four years.

Bringing back a balance
Returning your omega-3 and omega-6 intake to a healthful balance requires a two-pronged approach. First, find ways to increase your intake of omega-3 fats, such as eating more omega-3-rich fish or taking fish oil supplements.

Second, cut back on omega-6 forms of unsaturated fats whenever you can. A good choice would be to use monounsaturated fats such as olive oil in place of polyunsaturated fats that are rich in omega-6s. For example, instead of sauteing your vegetables in corn oil or tossing your salad with a dressing made with safflower oil, use olive oil instead.

Another option is to use items that contain some saturated fat in place of items that are rich in omega-6 fats. As long as your saturated fat intake remains below 10 percent of your total daily calories, it's okay to use a pat of butter—which has an excellent omega-6/omega-3 ratio—instead of margarine. The body needs a small amount of saturated fat for certain physiological functions. Just don't go overboard.

If you consume 2,000 calories per day, no more than 200 of those calories should come from saturated fat. That's about 2 tablespoons of butter. (Keep in mind you'd need to use far less butter than that on your toast if you consume other foods with saturated fat, such as eggs, red meat, baked goods or whole dairy products such as full-fat cheese.)

If you need to cut back on saturated fat or total fat intake, stick to non-fat substitutions for omega-6-rich fats. For example, non-fat cream cheese or whole-fruit spread can replace margarine spreads. And whenever you bake, find healthier substitutions for corn oil and shortening, such as fruit purees or yogurt.

Choosing meats that come from grass-fed cows and cheeses made from the milk of grass-fed cows may be another way to cut back on omega-6s, as well as eating eggs from hens that are fed flaxseed or allowed to roam and eat a more varied diet. That's because animals fed foods that are rich in omega-3—or precursors of omega-3—such as flax or wild plants, tend to produce meat, eggs or milk that is richer in omega-3 and less rich in omega-6.

However, products from specially fed animals are not always carried by major grocery stores, so you may have to do some searching at health food stores or specialty grocery stores.

Examine the labels of all your foods, discover which ones are high in omega-6-rich oils, consider what alternatives exist and choose the one with which you feel most comfortable.

The future of fats
Research into the health impacts of dietary fat is ongoing. Some day soon, more pieces of the puzzle—pieces we didn't even know were missing—may be discovered. For example, additional sources of healthy omega-3s, additional benefits of various dietary fats and new knowledge about the best ways to include fat in the diet may be just down the road. Being adaptable and flexible and staying abreast of the latest research can help you take advantage of the latest scientific findings as they unfold.

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