Heart Healthy Fat Helps Lower Cholesterol
It seems Americans are more fat-conscious than ever. Recent news has been flooded with information about fat and diets. A recent study showed that almonds, a high fat food, can lower cholesterol. The latest dietary guidelines from the National Academy of Sciences allow more fat in the diet. McDonald’s announced it is changing the fat in its cooking oil. This change won’t cut calories, but the fries will be better for your heart. With all these reports, it is hard not to become confused. Is fat good or bad? Does the type of fat matter?
Why we worry about fat
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the number one killer in the U.S. Many things contribute to CVD, including a poor diet. In general, a diet high in cholesterol and saturated fat leads to high blood cholesterol levels. Extra cholesterol can cause deposits to form on the walls of your arteries. These deposits can block blood flowing to the heart and cause chest pain (angina) or a heart attack. This is coronary heart disease (CHD). The deposits can also block the blood flowing to the brain and cause a stroke.
While cholesterol is necessary for life, the body can make all it needs. High cholesterol in the blood can lead to CVD. “Total cholesterol” is the sum of all the cholesterol in your blood. High total cholesterol can increase your risk of heart disease. A “lipid profile” measures different types of cholesterol. LDL (low density lipoprotein) is the “bad cholesterol”. It can clog your arteries and increase your CHD risk. The main goal in cholesterol management often is to lower LDL. HDL (high density lipoprotein) is the “good cholesterol”. It helps remove LDL from the blood. High HDL levels protect you from CHD. Low levels increase your risk of CHD.
What about triglycerides?
Triglycerides are another type of fat found in your blood. High triglycerides may also cause CHD. When doctors check cholesterol, they usually check triglycerides, too.
The link between fats and cholesterol
In the past, doctors believed a diet high in fat led to high cholesterol. Recent scientific data shows certain types of fat raise cholesterol more than others. You may actually reduce your bad cholesterol if you substitute one type of fat for another. If you understand the differences between fats, you can design a diet that tastes good and is heart healthy.
Moderation is key
Diets with less than recommended amounts of fat may not be healthy, either. They often replace fat calories with those from carbohydrates. Studies show that this may actually increase your risk for CHD by raising triglycerides and decreasing HDL. This is one reason the new dietary guidelines are allowing slightly more fat in the diet. However, the type of fat you eat is important.
Sorting through the fat
There are four types of fat in your diet: saturated fats, trans fatty acids, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats.
Saturated fat is a major dietary player in high cholesterol. Diets high in saturated fat often raise LDL. This results in an increased risk for heart disease. Fatty meats (pork and beef), whole milk, cheese and butter all contain saturated fats.
Trans fatty acids can also increase LDL. In addition, they can lower HDL. This double whammy may increase your risk for CHD. Foods made with “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oils contain trans fatty acids. These include stick margarines, fried foods, pastries and store-bought cookies and crackers. Trans fatty acids also naturally exist in milk and other foods.
Unsaturated fats may help your cholesterol. In studies, replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats lowers LDL. Products like olive oil, canola oil and pecans contain monounsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats include the omega-3 fatty acids found in walnuts, salmon and tuna.
Making healthy choices
With this knowledge, you can change your diet to include foods that are most helpful in lowering your risk for heart disease. Remember, the healthiest diet is a well balanced diet. Check with your health care professional before making major changes. In general:
- Limit saturated fats and trans fatty acids. Your body doesn’t require either to survive, and they only increase your risk for CHD.
- Follow McDonald’s lead: replace saturated fats and trans fatty acids with unsaturated fats. Use canola or olive oil instead of butter. Choose healthy foods such as fish, nuts or olives.
- Steer clear of diets low in fat and high in carbohydrates. They may make your cholesterol worse.
- Read nutrition labels before buying a product. Most labels just list total fat and saturated fat. Some may include unsaturated fats. The FDA is considering adding trans fatty acids to labels. Until then, limit products with “hydrogenated” oils and saturated fat.
- Don’t forget the calories! Foods like nuts have heart healthy fats and a lot of calories. Limit the number of calories you eat each day to prevent weight gain.
The bottom line
Unsaturated fats can lower LDL cholesterol when they replace saturated fats. This could decrease your risk for heart disease. However, eating too many almonds or McDonald’s French fries can add extra calories and extra weight. A well balanced diet with limited amounts of saturated fat and trans fatty acids will help your cholesterol levels. Remember, adjusting fat intake is just one component of a healthy diet. A healthy diet is just one component of overall cholesterol management. Speak to your health care professional about these and other tips to lower your cholesterol.
By Kerri DeNucci, Doctor of Pharmacy Candidate, 2003 Raabe College of Pharmacy, Ohio Northern University Ada, Ohio
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