By: Jeff Volek, Ph.D., R.D.
Did you know there are more than 15 types of saturated fat? And despite the fact that they’ve been damned as a whole by nutrition experts for decades, some of them are actually heart healthy. That’s good news, since high-fat foods are often the tastiest.
But a bad reputation is hard to shake. And though saturated fat is the most obvious example of a bad food gone good, it’s not the only one. I’ve run the numbers and scoured the research to determine which vilified foods have been unjustly convicted. The result: six snacks and drinks that deserve an immediate pardon.
Why you think they’re bad: These puffy snacks are literally cut from pigskin. Then they’re deep-fried.
Why they’re not: A 1-ounce serving contains zero carbohydrates, 17 grams (g) of protein, and 9 g fat. That’s nine times the protein and less fat than you’ll find in a serving of carb-packed potato chips. Even better, 43 percent of a pork rind’s fat is unsaturated, and most of that is oleic acid—the same healthy fat found in olive oil. Another 13 percent of its fat content is stearic acid, a type of saturated fat that’s considered harmless, because it doesn’t raise cholesterol levels.
Eat this: J&J Critters Microwave Pork Rinds ($6.50 for a 10-ounce container; www.microwaveporkrinds.com). Because the rinds are cooked and puffed in a microwave instead of deep-fried, each serving contains only 4 g fat—meaning they’re lower in calories and less greasy than regular pork rinds.
Why you think it’s bad: It has little nutritional value and is the reason we need the term “beer belly.”
Why it’s not: In a study of more than 18,000 men, Harvard scientists discovered that those who had an average of two drinks every day, 5 to 7 days a week, had the lowest risk of heart attack. And researchers at the University of Buffalo found that men who consume that same daily amount have lower levels of abdominal fat than those who drink only once or twice every 2 weeks but down more than four drinks each time.
Drink this: Pinot noir. It contains more disease-fighting antioxidants than any other type of alcoholic beverage. Look for a Santa Barbara County pinot noir that’s a 2002 to 2004 vintage; those are generally recognized as the top wine-producing years for this finicky grape. We like the 2003 Foley, best in show at the San Francisco International Wine Festival (foleywines.com).
Why you think it’s bad: It’s unhealthy meat that’s loaded with preservatives.
Why it’s not: Beef jerky is high in protein and doesn’t raise your level of insulin—a hormone that signals your body to store fat. That makes it an ideal between-meals snack, especially when you’re trying to lose weight. And while some beef-jerky brands are packed with high-sodium ingredients, such as MSG and sodium nitrate, chemical-free products are available. If you have high blood pressure, check the label for brands that are made from all-natural ingredients, which reduce the total sodium content.
Eat this: Gourmet Natural Beef Jerky (available at americangrassfedbeef.com). It has no preservatives and is made from lean, grass-fed beef. Research shows that, unlike grain-fed products, grass-fed beef contains the same healthy omega-3 fats found in fish.
Why you think it’s bad: You know 90 percent of its calories are derived from fat, at least half of which is saturated.
Why it’s not: The percentage of fat is high, but the total amount isn’t. Consider that a serving of sour cream is 2 tablespoons. That provides just 52 calories— half the amount that’s in a single tablespoon of mayonnaise—and less saturated fat than you’d get from drinking a 12-ounce glass of 2 percent reduced-fat milk.
Eat this: Full-fat sour cream. Unless you actually prefer the taste of light or fat-free products (and who does?), opt for the classic version; it tastes richer, and the fat will help keep you full longer.
Why you think it’s bad: Ounce for ounce, coconut contains more saturated fat than butter does. As a result, health experts have warned that it will clog your arteries.
Why it’s not: Even though coconut is packed with saturated fat, it appears to have a beneficial effect on heart-disease risk factors. One reason: More than 50 percent of its saturated-fat content is lauric acid. A recent analysis of 60 studies published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports that even though lauric acid raises LDL (bad) cholesterol, it boosts HDL (good) cholesterol even more. Overall, this means it decreases your risk of cardiovascular disease. The rest of the saturated fat is almost entirely composed of “medium-chain” fatty acids, which have little or no effect on cholesterol levels.
Eat this: Shredded, unsweetened coconut.Have a handful as an anytime snack, straight from the bag. (Don’t gorge; it’s still high in calories.) It’ll be filling, and won’t spike your blood sugar.
Why you think they’re bad: They’re high in both sugar and fat.
Why they’re not: Cocoa is rich in flavonoids—the same heart-healthy compounds found in red wine and green tea. Its most potent form is dark chocolate. In a recent study, Greek researchers found that consuming dark chocolate containing 100 milligrams (mg) of flavonoids relaxes your blood vessels, improving bloodflow to your heart. What about the fat? It’s mostly stearic and oleic acids.
Eat this: CocoaVia chocolate bars. Each 100-calorie bar is guaranteed to contain 100 mg flavonoids. As an added benefit, the chocolate has been beefed up with phytosterols, compounds that have been shown to help reduce cholesterol. Find the bars at many Wal-Mart stores, or online at cocoavia.com.