It seems like more and more brands over the years have released “low-fat,” “reduced fat,” or “fat-free” options for the foods many Americans love most – potato chips, candies, cake, yogurt, cookies, and even ice creams. Why then do Americans continue to get fatter? Why are so many people still afflicted with chronic diseases such as heart disease?
The increased low-fat options on the grocery shelves don’t seem to be helping our country through this obesity epidemic.
What many people do not know is that all fats are NOT created equal. Most nutrition guidelines recommend that the average person get between 20 and 35 percent of their calories each day from fats. While the quantity of fats you eat is important, the quality of the fats you eat is just as important and is often overlooked by consumers. The problem with this “low-fat” diet mentality is that it prompts many people to stop eating healthy fats from whole foods. The calories they would normally get from fat are often replaced with empty calories from processed foods, refined carbohydrates, and sugary drinks.
I hope this post changes the way you think about fat, helps you to identify the sources of “good” and “bad” fats in your diet, and inspires you to make some easy swaps that could dramatically improve your overall health and decrease your risk for chronic diseases.
First, I will introduce you to the “good” fats. The good fats are the unsaturated fats, which include monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats.
Of the polyunsaturated fats, there are two major types that you may have heard before: omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Americans typically consume 14 to 25 times more omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acids (a 14-25:1 ratio compared to the recommended 2-4:1 ratio for these fats). While we do need omega-6 fatty acids in our diet, an excess of these fats promote inflammation (which can lead to chronic disease). In contrast, omega-3 fatty acids decrease inflammation in our bodies (which can help reduce risk of chronic disease). In fact, many studies have shown that people who follow a Mediterranean diet (which is higher in omega-3s and lower in omega-6s) are much less likely to develop heart disease (which is related to inflammation) than those who eat a more Americanized diet (which is higher in omega-6s to and lower in omega-3s).
You also may have heard of EPA and DHA. These are types of omega-3s (mainly found in fatty fish) that are very beneficial to our health because they work to keep our brains and hearts healthy.
Now, I would like you to meet trans fats—also known as the “bad” fat. In fact, trans fats increase the levels of LDL “bad” cholesterol in our bodies and decrease the levels of HDL “good” cholesterol. This imbalance of LDL and HDL contributes to the number one cause of death in America: heart disease. If all Americans cut artificial trans fats out of their diets, 10,000 to 20,000 heart attacks and 3,000 to 7,000 deaths resulting from heart disease could be prevented each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Although some trans fats are naturally found in small amounts in fatty meats and dairy, they are most commonly found in processed foods in the form of hydrogenated oils. The hydrogenating process artificially creates solidified trans fats by adding hydrogen molecules to liquid oils. This process saves food manufacturers money by increasing the shelf life of processed foods, but it does nothing to save us money on our future medical bills!
Note: Food labels will try to trick you when it comes to trans fats. Even if a food label reads “0g trans fat”, it may still contain trans fat. You have to check the ingredients list for words like “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” which will indicate that the product contains trans fats.
Now I’m going to introduce you to some fats that are not necessarily good or bad. The research on these types of fats are controversial, but I will highlight what the latest studies are saying.
When it comes to the health impacts of saturated fats (SF), the research is inconclusive. In the past, SF intake has been associated with adverse health effects such as heart disease. However, current research suggests that the adverse health effects found in past studies may be related to factors other than SF. For example, some SF-containing foods (such as cookies, pies, cakes, and doughnuts) contain ingredients other than SFs (i.e. refined carbohydrates) that could influence heart disease risk.
Similarly, many studies are finding that not all SFs are alike. SFs are found in a wide variety of foods – some of the most common being meat, poultry, dairy, and tropical oils (such as coconut and palm oils). New research implies that SF from one source may have a different effect on our body than SF from another source.
So what is our conclusion from all this inconclusive evidence? Saturated fats from whole foods are not necessarily “bad” when eaten in small amounts. Still, we stand by the recommendation that you take in less than 10% of your daily calories from these fats (based on the Dietary Guidelines).
Cholesterol in our food comes mostly from animal foods such as meats, poultry, egg yolks, and whole milk. Also, our bodies can make cholesterol in small amounts to support important functions in our bodies (i.e. formation of many hormones and long term brain health).
New research suggests that eating foods high in cholesterol has less of an impact on our blood cholesterol levels than previously thought. According to current research, the biggest influence on our blood cholesterol levels is the type of fats (and carbohydrates) you eat – not the amount of cholesterol-rich foods you eat. Dietary cholesterol isn’t as terrible as it’s often portrayed to be!
The levels of total cholesterol (LDL + HDL) and LDL “bad” cholesterol in our blood is what matters most. When our total and/or LDL cholesterol levels are too high, cholesterol builds up and hardens in our vessels, preventing blood flow and leading to heart attack or stroke. As I said earlier, we want to maintain Low LDL (“bad” cholesterol) levels and High HDL (“good” cholesterol) levels. HDL “good” cholesterol helps to eliminate LDL cholesterol from our bodies to decrease our total cholesterol.
Recent studies suggest that trans fats influence our cholesterol levels more than cholesterol itself. This means that cutting trans fats out of your diet may be the best way to lower your total blood cholesterol. Still, we stand by the recommendation to consume no more than 300 mg cholesterol each day (based on the Dietary Guidelines).
I want to challenge each of you to be proactive by avoiding trans fats from processed foods and choosing fats that come from whole foods—choose the unsaturated kind (particularly omega-3s) as much as possible! Making changes in the types of fats you include in your diet can dramatically improve your health so you can enjoy a long and prosperous life.