Despite eating a third less trans fats and cutting down on saturated fat during the last 30 years, people are still consuming more than recommended, according to a new study.

Consumption of omega-3 fatty acid consumption also held steady, despite recommendations for higher intake.

Researchers reviewed data from more than 12,000 people, ages 25-74, who lived in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and participated in the Minnesota Heart Survey, which was given six times between 1980 and 2009.

 

They found:

  • Trans fat intake dropped 32 percent in men and 35 percent in women;
  • Saturated fat intake dropped, but was still 11.4 percent of daily calories. This is well above the American Heart Association’s recommended 5 percent to 6 percent;
  • Omega-3 fatty acid intake remained steady, but was still very low.

“There’s a downward trend in trans and saturated fat intake levels, but it’s clear that we still have room for improvement,” said Mary Ann Honors, Ph.D., lead study author and an epidemiology researcher at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis.

Dietary fats help the body with many important functions – creating energy, promoting cell growth, protecting the organs, keeping the body warm and absorbing certain nutrients. Different types of fat affect both the “good” HDL and “bad” LDL cholesterol in the body.

“Saturated fats and more recently, trans fats, should be limited in the diet,” said Robert Eckel, professor of medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver and the Charles A. Boettcher endowed chair in atherosclerosis. Dr. Eckel concluded that “These trends are favorable.”

Previous studies show that saturated and trans fats raise bad cholesterol. Other studies have shown that monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats can lower bad cholesterol.

Fats contain calories and consuming too many calories can lead to weight gain. However some fats are better than others, according to the AHA. “Fat restriction is not the message,” Eckel, a past president of the AHA, said about the organization’s recommendations. “It’s about reducing saturated and trans fat and following an overall heart-healthy dietary pattern, including fruits and veggies and whole grains.”

Saturated fats are found in animal products such as meat and full-fat dairy products, as well as some tropical oils such as coconut or palm oil. Trans fats are mainly found in processed, fried and commercially baked foods such as pastries, cakes, pies, cookies, snack foods, and crackers.

Eckel said that although the AHA recommends limiting saturated fats and trans fats, it doesn’t mean that saturated fat must be avoided completely. “I eat a medium rare steak once a month, but I don’t eat it three times a week.”

The study found that men consumed about 1.9 percent of their daily calories from trans fats and women about 1.7 percent. The AHA recommends reducing the percent of calories from trans fat in the diet.

“To make your diet more in line with the recommendations, use the nutritional panel on food labels to choose foods with little or no trans fats,” Honors said.

Omega-3 fatty acids are thought to reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease. To get enough omega-3s, AHA recommends that people eat a variety of fish at least twice a week, with an emphasis on fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel and herring.

Despite the encouraging news from the study, Eckel said that all dietary studies are limited because it’s easy for people to not remember exactly what they ate and how much. He said studies show that obese people often underestimate how much fat they consume.

Given the high levels of obesity in the U.S., “we have more to accomplish,” he added.

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