Fats are essential macronutrients that provide a wide variety of health benefits. However, there are different types of fat that affect your body differently. You have probably heard the terms “Good Fat” and “Bad Fat,” but what does that even mean?
Chemically speaking, Fats are called Lipids, and the terms “Fat”, “Lipid,” and “Fatty Acid” are often interchangeable. There are four primary categories of Fat:
- Monounsaturated (“MUFAs”): These are plant fats that are easy for the body to break down. Studies show that consuming MUFAs improve blood cholesterol levels, therefore reducing the risk of heart disease, and in their natural state they can reduce inflammation. In addition, they provide nourishment for the body’s cells and contribute vitamin E to the diet. Olive oil, avocados, almonds, peanuts and sesame seeds are good sources.
- Likewise, Polyunsaturated fats (“PUFAs”) reduce the risk of coronary artery disease by lowering LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels. The two most common PUFA’s are Omega 6 and Omega-3 Fatty Acids. These are “essential fatty acids” because your body does not make them on its own … they must be ingested. Research has shown that Omega 3s may decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease. Omega-3s are found in fish oils including fatty fish like salmon, tuna and halibut; flaxseed, walnuts, chia seed and spirulina.
- Saturated fat: These come primarily from animals and are solid at room temperature. Due to their chemical structure, they pack together quite nicely, so they are denser and harder for the body to break down. Saturated fats are big contributors to elevated LDL levels. You find them in meats such as beef and pork; poultry, eggs, butter, cheese, and milk products. The USDA recommends minimizing “Sat Fats” to less than 10% of daily calories as they increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Trans fats: While small amounts of trans fats are found naturally in meat and dairy, most trans fats are the product of chemical alteration through a process called hydrogenation. Just as Frankenstein was created in a laboratory, I think of these as “FrankenFats” from TRANSylvania … avoid them because they can do scary things to your heart! The FDA recommends limiting trans fats to less than 5% of total calories per day.
What about cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a steroid (subcategory of lipid) made by the body. It is also made in animals, so dietary cholesterol comes from consuming animal products.
We need small amounts of cholesterol for hormone and cell production. However, the human body produces enough cholesterol on its own, so there is no need for excess cholesterol through diet. As a matter of fact, too much of certain types of cholesterol is exactly what causes the build-up in arteries which limits blood circulation and may lead to cardiovascular disease.
The US Dept. of Health and Human Services, along with the USDA, announced in the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans that dietary cholesterol does not have a direct impact on serum (blood) cholesterol levels. However, foods high in dietary cholesterol frequently contain significant amounts of saturated fat, which DOES raise serum cholesterol levels and contributes to heart disease.
When you look at a food label, you will see “total fat,” “saturated fat,” and “cholesterol” listed. Total fat should remain in a range of 20-35% of total calories per day, and saturated fat should be under 10% . While USDA recommendations for cholesterol are still at 300 mg per day, this guideline is precautionary.
Cholesterol: The Good, the Bad, and the Other
Like fat, cholesterol can also be categorized as “Good” and “Bad.”
First the Good: High Density Lipoproteins (HDL), which you can remember as “Healthy” cholesterol. When you have your cholesterol checked, HDL levels should be at least 40 for men and 50 for women. The best way to raise HDL levels is through exercise.
Then the Bad: Low Density Lipoproteins (LDL), which you can remember as “Lousy” cholesterol. LDL levels should be below 100, with the most conservative recommendation now set at below 70. The best way to lower LDL is to reduce consumption of saturated and trans fat.
The Other: Triglycerides. While triglycerides are different from cholesterol, they are usually included in the lipid panel so it is worth mentioning them. “Trigs” are also lipids stored in your blood, and too many may lead to hardening of the arteries. Keep your Trig levels below 149. Research is now showing that the best way to reduce triglycerides is to refrain from simple carbohydrates (as in, sugar!)… and that is a whole different lesson!
What is the Bottom Line?
Fat is an essential macronutrient. You need to consume fat to keep your body running effectively. However, Americans tend to consume too much fat, which often leads to heart disease, the number one cause of death in the United States.
While consuming adequate amounts of fat is necessary, not all fat is created equally. Among the different types of fat, unsaturated fats have more health benefits than saturated fats. This is because saturated fats contribute to a buildup of cholesterol in the arteries, and this makes the heart work harder and limits oxygen flow throughout the body.
Following a balanced diet is the best way to assure that you get the type and amount of nutrients your body needs to function at its optimal level. For more information or one-on-one coaching, go to www.CoachMCares.com or contact Melissa Seuster at 704-957-9341.