Not so long ago, saturated fat used to be a big, bad ogre.
In the 1960s, when heart disease hit its all-time high, a national campaign urged Americans to dump lard and switch to plant oils.
Fast food joints and the makers of snack foods learned that it was good business to start frying in and cooking with vegetable oil. Likewise, the makers of margarine leapt to corn and safflower oils and marketed their products as "healthy."
Granted, the oils needed to be processed to extend their shelf life and to make them solid at room temperature -- after all, who wants to drizzle corn oil on their toast or pour it over mashed potatoes?
Just add a little hydrogen and a tiny bit of magic, and voila! Trans fats.
Of course, that was before we knew about the dark side of trans fats -- and the fact that like saturated fat, these fats also are associated with heart disease and a host of other diseases.
Fats, Full Circle
Now, 40 years later, we're running away from trans fats, too, but where are we running to? For Dunkin' Donuts, the solution is a new blend of palm, soybean and cottonseed oils, a baby step in a healthy direction for a product that is still mostly sugar, flour and fat.
But the real irony is that in many foods, we've already gone full circle. Have you looked at a label lately? We're now turning back to fats that are saturated -- fats that once, and still are, associated with heart disease.
Confused? You should be! Granted, these new products are a little better than the old ones, but the sad news is that none are really great for your health.
Avoiding the Big Fat Problem
So, how can we avoid both trans fats and saturated fats?
First, choose monounsaturated oils.
We've known for years that olive oil and canola oil are the best bets. Use these oils when you cook and bake. For example, the next time you make brownies, use unhydrogenated canola oil. You likely won't taste a difference, but try it with pie crust and you might find it a bit tough.
Not a baker, and want to pick something healthful off the shelf? That's a bit tough too; almost all packaged cookies and pastries are back to using saturated fats. Bring on the heart attack!
Second, read the label, and seek healthier choices.
This is tough with certain foods, like margarine. Generally speaking, the sprays are best, and if you read the label you'll find a few good products that have minimal amounts of hydrogenated oils, no trans fats and only one gram of saturated fat per serving.
They will taste the same as butter, but you may have to close your eyes and pretend that they actually melted instead of sitting inertly on your warm slice of toast.
Finally and most importantly, try to choose healthier foods in general.
Let's face it, fried foods are not healthy, and it's really difficult to find a truly healthful snack chip or pastry. We all would be a lot better off if we reserved these foods for special occasions and relied on healthier alternatives in our day-to-day lives.
These alternatives include:
poached, baked or broiled chicken instead of fried (the same goes for fish);
baked potatoes or other vegetables instead of French fries (as an aside, do you know that French fries have been associated with a host of deviant behavior, from physical inactivity and smoking to teenage violence?);
fruit for dessert instead of cakes, pies and cookies.
Indeed, it's time that we dispense with fairy tales and realize that there is no such thing as a healthy French fry. Or a diet donut, for that matter. If we want to be truly healthy, we need to be responsible for own health and not expect to find magic when we drive up to the window and place our order.
Wendy Demark-Wahnefried is a licensed dietitian nutritionist with the Duke University School of Nursing.