For decades, we’ve been told about the harmful effects of eating a diet high in fat, including an increased risk of obesity and high cholesterol. However, this is only partially true. While certain fats will have a detrimental impact on your heart health and overall health, other fats are essential to a well-balanced diet. We call them essential fatty acids. The key is understanding which fats to consume. This will allow you to limit your consumption of harmful fats and replace them with more heart-healthy fats.
The Connection Between Fat and Cholesterol
Cholesterol gets a lot of bad publicity, but people are often surprised to learn that it’s actually necessary for our existence. Cholesterol is a substance made in the liver that’s vital to human life. We need a small amount of blood cholesterol because the body uses it to:
- build the structure of cell membranes
- make hormones like estrogen, testosterone, and adrenal hormones
- produce vitamin D
- produce bile acids, which help the body digest fat and absorb important nutrients.
These are important functions, all dependent on the presence of cholesterol. But too much of a good thing isn’t good at all.
Before discussing the difference between good and bad fats, it’s important to explain the role fat plays in your cholesterol levels. Your body needs certain cholesterol types to function properly, as explained above, but cholesterol can potentially be harmful to your health when you produce an excessive amount of it.
There are two main types of cholesterol:
- HDL cholesterol – This is considered beneficial cholesterol
- LDL cholesterol – This is considered harmful cholesterol
To promote optimal heart health, you want to maintain low LDL cholesterol levels and high levels of HDL cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is considered the “bad” cholesterol because, along with inflammation, it contributes to fatty buildups in arteries (atherosclerosis). This narrows the arteries and increases the risk for heart attack, stroke, and peripheral artery disease.
HDL cholesterol can be thought of as the “good” cholesterol because a healthy level may protect against heart attack and stroke.
HDL carries LDL (bad) cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver, where the LDL is broken down and passed from the body. Think of HDL as tiny dump trucks that carry bad LDL away from the arteries. But HDL cholesterol doesn’t completely eliminate LDL cholesterol. HDL carries only one-third to one-fourth of blood cholesterol.
Low HDL cholesterol levels may be a sign that you’re at an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, and metabolic syndrome.
The types of fats you consume will significantly impact the type of cholesterol your body produces. By replacing bad fats with good fats, you can help maintain healthy HDL and LDL cholesterol levels.
Good Fats vs. Bad Fats for Heart Health
There are two different types of fat:
- Unsaturated fat
- Saturated fat
Unsaturated Fats are Good Fats that Promote Heart Health
Unsaturated fats are considered to be “good fats” because they promote heart health. Benefits of unsaturated fats include:
- Reduced risk of heart disease and stroke
- Prevention of abnormal heart rhythms
- Prevention of atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of your arteries)
- Reduced levels of bad LDL cholesterol, as well as increased levels of good HDL cholesterol
- Reduction in triglycerides associated with heart disease
- Lower blood pressure
- Reduction of hunger, which can promote weight loss
There are two types of unsaturated fats:
- Monounsaturated fats – These fats are rich in antioxidants and lower your risk of a heart attack
- Polyunsaturated fats – These fats are a great source of omega-3 and omega-6, which contain anti-inflammatory properties and reduce levels of harmful cholesterol
Common sources of monounsaturated fats include:
- Olive, peanut, canola, and sesame oils
- Nuts (peanuts, cashews, almonds. hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pistachios)
- Peanut butter
The following foods provide good sources of polyunsaturated fats:
- Sunflower, pumpkin, and sesame seeds
- Fatty fish (salmon, trout, tuna, mackerel, sardines, herring)
- Fish oil
Saturated Fats Should Be Limited to Very Small Quantities
Saturated fats are considered “bad fats” because they can increase your harmful LDL cholesterol levels and be hazardous to your heart health. While you don’t need to eliminate saturated fats from your diet entirely, the American Heart Association recommends you limit them to 5% to 6% of calories from saturated fat.
For example, if you need about 2,000 calories a day, no more than 100 – 120 of them should come from saturated fat. That’s about 11-13 grams of saturated fat per day. An ounce of cheddar cheese has 6 grams of saturated fat. One egg has about 2 grams of saturated fat.
You want to replace saturated fats with healthier unsaturated fats instead of substituting carb-heavy food items, especially processed carbohydrates like white flour and sugar, which can also cause a lot of damage to the heart.
Foods that tend to be high in saturated fat include:
- Red meat (beef, pork, lamb, veal)
- Chicken skin
- Hot dogs, bologna, salami, ham
- Lard, bacon fat
- Whole-fat dairy products (2% and whole milk, cheese, cream, 4% cottage cheese)
- Ice cream
- Tropical oils (coconut and palm oil, palm kernel)
- Baked goods, such as cookies, pastries, croissants
Trans Fats Are the Most Harmful Fats for Heart Health
Trans fats are considered the worst type of fat for your heart health because it raises LDL cholesterol levels while lowering HDL levels. Also, trans fat can cause inflammation, which increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
In recent years, the FDA has taken steps to get food manufacturers to eliminate trans fats from their products. Therefore, you’re much less likely to see them in the items you purchase due to these new regulations. However, it’s still a good idea to check nutrition labels – if they list ingredients such as “partially hydrogenated oils” or indicate the product contains up to 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, avoid purchasing the product. No amount of trans fat is considered safe, and it’s recommended that you take steps to eliminate them from your diet.
Common sources of trans fat include:
- Fried foods
- Commercially baked products such as cookies, pastries, cakes, muffins, and donuts
- Packaged snack foods such as chips, crackers, and microwave popcorn
- Vegetable shortening and stick margarine
- Fast food
Tips for Including More Healthy Fats in Your Diet
You don’t need to count grams of fat at each meal. Instead, eat a healthy, balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and beans. Shoot for two or more fatty fish servings per week while keeping your dairy intake in moderation and eliminating or at least limiting red meat and especially processed red meat intake to minimum quantities. Avoid fried or processed foods if at all possible.
You can easily make these adjustments without radically altering your diet. The following tips will help ensure your diet contains the right kinds of fats:
- Limit your intake of saturated fats – Replace red meat portions with other protein sources such as fish or poultry or beans/legumes. Change the way you prepare foods (for example, replace fried chicken with grilled chicken). Replace whole milk dairy products with lower fat products.
- Consume omega-3 fats daily – Great sources of omega-3 fats include fish, walnuts, canola oil, soybean oil, flaxseed oil, and ground flaxseed.
- Eat avocados – Avocados are loaded with healthy unsaturated fats, and they will help make your meal more filling.
- Cook with olive oil – Substitute olive oil for butter, lard, or stick margarine when cooking on the stovetop. When baking, use organic canola oil instead of these less healthy options. Be sure to buy your oils in glass containers instead of plastic to reduce your exposure to toxins in plastic.
- Eat plenty of nuts – Nuts are a great source of healthy fats. They make for a filling and healthy snack. You can also add them to vegetable dishes.
- Make your own salad dressing – Commercial salad dressings are often high in unhealthy fats, saturated fats and contain lots of sugar and salt. Instead of using these products, create your own salad dressing using extra virgin olive oil, sesame, or flaxseed oil as a base.
What about cholesterol in foods like shellfish
Only animal products contain cholesterol itself, as a liver is needed for its production. However, cholesterol content should be less of a concern than saturated fat content. Many researchers and physicians believe that eating cholesterol-rich foods such as shrimp and lobster may not affect the cholesterol that is in your blood to a large extent. The body creates cholesterol in amounts much larger than what you can eat, so completely avoiding high cholesterol foods won’t affect your blood cholesterol levels very much. It’s more important to watch saturated fat, processed carbs like white flour and sugar, and trans fat.
For great salad dressing recipes: http://www.eatingwell.com/recipes/17980/sauces-condiments/salad-dressing/
South Denver Cardiology Associates Can Help You Construct a Heart-Healthy Diet
At South Denver Cardiology Associates, we have various special programs to help you control your nutrition to improve your heart health. These resources are available to everyone in the Denver community. You don’t have to be a patient to utilize these valuable programs.
A Registered Dietitian Nutritionist can help you find ways to make real changes, identify potential barriers, and create plans to help you succeed. Call 303-744-1065 option #2 to schedule an appointment.
As with any health concerns, your specific treatment program should be discussed thoroughly with your primary care physician as well as any specialists who may need to be consulted – like a cardiologist.