Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Diets high in fat can be detrimental to your health. Obviously, this is no great revelation. We hear about the dangers of what eating too much fat can do to our health all the time. We’ve been taught that eating fat promotes heart disease, cancer, diabetes, immune dysfunction, stroke, obesity and reproductive problems – and we wrongly equate fats to being a dieter’s biggest menace. But, we should not eliminate fats from our diet completely. There are bad fats, but then there are better fats – and it’s important to know how to differentiate between them.
By choosing better fats over harmful trans, saturated and hydrogenated fats, we can help reduce our health risks. The important point is that dietary fats are essential to give our bodies energy and to support cell growth. Fats also help the body absorb some nutrients and produce important hormones. Certain fats help protect organs and keep the body warm. We all need fat, but not in excessive amounts.
So, here’s the skinny on fats – the bad and the better ones.
1. Not all fats are the same. Some will lower your bad cholesterol, while others will increase your bad cholesterol.
2. Trans and saturated fats are the “bad” fats.
3. Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are the “better” fats.
4. All fats are equally high in calories (9 calories per gram). For this reason, it is a good idea that fat (no matter what kind of fat) consists of no more than 30% of your diet.
5. Labels claiming to be ‘trans fat-free’ might instead be substituting with other bad fats – like saturated fats.
What happens when we eat too much fat? Since cholesterol cannot dissolve in the blood, it needs to be transported to and from the cells by carriers called ‘lipoproteins.’ If too much LDL (bad) cholesterol circulates in the blood, the inner walls of the arteries that feed the heart and brain can slowly build up with plaque. Narrowed arteries due to this plaque build-up consequently lose the ability to carry harmful clots and blockages through the bloodstream, which could result in heart attack or stroke. This condition is known as atherosclerosis.
Your total cholesterol count is made up of these key cholesterols:
Low-density Lipoprotein (LDL) – The bad cholesterol.
High-density Lipoprotein (HDL) – The better cholesterol.
Triglycerides – A form of fat made up in the body & sometimes linked to heart disease, diabetes, smoking, excessive alcohol drinking, and diets high in carbohydrates.
Lp(a) – A genetic variation of bad cholesterol. High levels of Lp(a) leads to significant risks for the premature development of fatty deposits in arteries.
Deciding if your cholesterol levels need to be modified is as simple as getting a blood test. Doctors recommend an LDL level below 100 mg/dL (milligrams per deciliter of blood.) and below 70 mg/dL for those with other risk factors. Optimally, triglycerides should be below 150 mg/dL and HDLs should be kept high – above 40 mg/dL and more than 60 mg/dL.
According to the American Heart Association, fewer than half of Americans know that the “better” fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) can help reduce their risk of heart disease and other illnesses.
THE BETTER FATS
Unsaturated Fats: Unsaturated fats are healthy fats that are derived from plants and lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and raise HDL (good) cholesterol. This type of fat is liquid at room temperature. There are two forms of unsaturated fat – monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat. These fats are rich in antioxidants. These good fats are what you should eat the most of as part of a heart-healthy diet. Foods containing these fats include:
· Pecans, hazelnuts, almonds, avocado, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, olive oil, peanut oil, and canola oil, and grape seed oil all have high concentrations of monounsaturated fats
· Fish, flax seeds, tofu, flaxseed oils, corn oil, soybean oil, and sunflower oil contain polyunsaturated fats
THE BAD FATS
Saturated Fats: These fats are found in animal products and processed foods such as meats, dairy products, chips, and pastries. Saturated fats are not heart healthy, since they are most known for raising your LDL cholesterol. These types of fats can be found in foods such as the ones listed below:
· Meats: Fatty cuts of lamb, pork and beef, skins on poultry, dark meat on chicken
· High Fat Dairy: cheese, butter, whole milk, 2% reduced fat milk, cream, cream cheese, sour cream, ice cream
· Tropical oils: coconut oil, palm oil, palm kernel oil, cocoa butter
Trans Fatty Acids (or “trans fats”): TFAs are processed fats, which are made from liquid oil and sometimes formed during the process of adding hydrogen, called “hydrogenation.” When hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oil along with added pressure, the result is a stiffer fat, like the fat found in a can of Crisco. Many manufacturers started including trans fats in their processed foods to prolong their products’ shelf life. Trans fats can be found in these foods:
· Fried Foods: fast foods, biscuits, fried fish sandwiches, french fries, fried apple or other pie desserts
· Sticks of margarine and some tub margarines
· Vegetable shortening, such as Crisco oil
· Commercially prepared foods & anything containing partially hydrogenated oils: crackers, cookies, cakes, pastries, microwave popcorn and other snack foods
Dietary Cholesterol: This is the waxy substance found only in foods of animal origins: meat, poultry, seafood, egg yolks and dairy products. Humans do not need to consume so much cholesterol because our cells can produce all the cholesterol our bodies need for use in cell membranes and hormones. The following foods contain cholesterol:
· Egg yolks or whole eggs
· Organ meats: liver, brains, kidney and sweetbreads
· Shrimp and squid/calamari
· Meat, poultry and seafood in large amounts
It’s not likely that any of us can completely eliminate trans fat from our lives, but a strong effort to stay away from ready-made processed foods is essential. Spend more time buying fresh ingredients and cooking them yourself. It takes more effort and time, but choosing your foods wisely and steering clear of the bad fats can potentially decrease inches to your waistline – and increase years to your lifeline.