Mega-Post: The Surprising Truth About Dietary Fat, Omega-3 and Cholesterol

Let’s get started with cholesterol

Cholesterol is a fatty, wax-like substance that your body needs to function properly. In and of itself, cholesterol isn’t bad. But when you get too much of it, it can have a negative impact on your health.

Cholesterol comes from two sources: your body and food. Your body (specifically, the liver) produces some of the cholesterol you need naturally. But you also get cholesterol directly from any animal products you eat, such as eggs, meat, and dairy. Together, these two sources contribute to your blood cholesterol level.

Good vs. Bad Cholesterol

As with dietary fat, there are good and bad types of cholesterol. HDL cholesterol is the “good” kind of cholesterol found in your blood. LDL cholesterol is the “bad” kind. The key is to keep HDL levels high and LDL levels low. High levels of HDL cholesterol help protect against heart disease and stroke, while high levels of LDL cholesterol can clog arteries, increasing your risk.

Research shows that there is only a weak link between the amount of cholesterol you eat and your blood cholesterol levels. The biggest influence on your total and LDL cholesterol is the type of fats you eat—not your dietary cholesterol. So instead of counting cholesterol, simply focus on replacing bad fats with good fats.

  • Monounsaturated fats lower total and bad (LDL) cholesterol levels, while increasing good cholesterol (HDL).

  • Polyunsaturated fats lower triglycerides and fight inflammation.

  • Saturated fats raise your blood cholesterol.

  • Trans fats are even worse than saturated fats, since they not only raise your bad LDL cholesterol, but also lower the good HDL cholesterol.

Fat – the good, the bad and the ugly

A walk down the grocery aisle will confirm our obsession with low-fat foods. We’re bombarded with supposedly guilt-free options: baked potato chips, fat-free ice cream, low-fat candies, cookies, and cakes. But while our low-fat options have exploded, so have obesity rates. Clearly, low-fat foods and diets haven’t delivered on their trim, healthy promises.

Despite what you may have been told, fat isn’t always the bad guy in the waistline wars. Bad fats, such as saturated fats and trans fats, are guilty of the unhealthy things all fats have been blamed for—weight gain, clogged arteries, and so forth. But good fats such as the monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, and omega-3s have the opposite effect.

As a matter of fact, healthy fats play a huge role in helping you manage your moods, stay on top of your mental game, fight fatigue, and even control your weight.

The answer isn’t cutting out the fat—it’s learning to make healthy choices and to replace bad fats with good ones that promote health and well-being.

Types of Dietary Fat: Good Fats vs. Bad Fats

To understand good and bad fats, you need to know the names of the players and some information about them. There are four major types of fats:

  • monounsaturated fats

  • polyunsaturated fats

  • saturated fats

  • trans fats

Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are known as the “good fats” because they are good for your heart, your cholesterol, and your overall health.

Saturated fats and trans fats are known as the “bad fats” because they increase your risk of disease and elevate cholesterol.

Choosing Healthy Fats

With so many different sources of dietary fat—some good and some bad—the choices can get confusing. But the bottom line is simple: don’t go no-fat, go good fat.

If you are concerned about your weight or heart health, rather than avoiding fat in your diet, try replacing saturated fats and trans fats with good fats. This might mean replacing some of the meat you eat with beans and legumes, or using olive oil rather than butter.

  • Try to eliminate trans fats from your diet. Check food labels for trans fats. Avoiding commercially-baked goods goes a long way. Also limit fast food.

  • Limit your intake of saturated fats by cutting back on red meat and full-fat dairy foods. Try replacing red meat with beans, nuts, poultry, and fish whenever possible, and switching from whole milk and other full-fat dairy foods to lower fat versions.

  • Eat omega-3 fats every day. Good sources include fish, walnuts, ground flax seeds, flaxseed oil, canola oil, and soybean oil.

How Much Fat Should You Eat?

How much fat is too much depends on your lifestyle, your weight, your age and most importantly the state of your health. The USDA recommends that the average individual:

  • Keep total fat intake to 20-35% of calories

  • Limit saturated fats to less than 10% of your calories (200 calories for a 2000 calorie diet)

  • Limit trans fats to 1% of calories (2 grams per day for a 2000 calorie diet)

The recommended fat intake from the American Heart Association falls in line with that suggested in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines. Your fat consumption should be between 20 to 35 percent of your total caloric intake. That means if you are consuming 2,000 calories a day, a healthy fat intake will be 400 to 700 calories. This range equals 44 to 78 grams, as 1 g of fat equals 9 calories. You can also use the American Heart Association’s Fat Intake Calculator, to determine your recommended intake based on your body size and activity level.

Saturated Fats

When focusing on healthy fats, a good place to start is reducing your consumption of saturated fats. Saturated fats are mainly found in animal products such as red meat and whole milk dairy products. Poultry and fish also contain saturated fat, but less than red meat. Other sources of saturated fat include tropical vegetable oils such as coconut oil and palm oil.

Simple Ways to Reduce Saturated Fat

  • Eat less red meat (beef, pork, or lamb) and more fish and chicken

  • Go for lean cuts of meat, and stick to white meat, which has less saturated fat.

  • Bake, broil, or grill instead of frying.

  • Remove the skin from chicken and trim as much fat off of meat as possible before cooking.

  • Avoid breaded meats and vegetables and deep-fried foods.

  • Choose low-fat milk and lower-fat cheeses like mozzarella whenever possible; enjoy full-fat dairy in moderation.

  • Use liquid vegetable oils such as olive oil or canola oil instead of lard, shortening, or butter.

  • Avoid cream and cheese sauces, or have them served on the side.

Eliminate Trans Fats From Your Diet

A trans fat is a normal fat molecule that has been twisted and deformed during a process called hydrogenation.During this process, liquid vegetable oil is heated and combined with hydrogen gas.

Partially hydrogenating vegetable oils makes them more stable and less likely to spoil, which is very good for food manufacturers—and very bad for you.

No amount of trans fats is healthy. Trans fats contribute to major health problems, from heart disease to cancer.

Sources of Trans Fats

Many people think of margarine when they picture trans fats, and it’s true that some margarines are loaded with them. However, the primary source of trans fats in the Western diet comes from commercially-prepared baked goods and snack foods:

  • Baked goods – cookies, crackers, cakes, muffins, pie crusts, pizza dough, and some breads like hamburger buns

  • Fried foods – doughnuts, French fries, fried chicken, chicken nuggets, and hard taco shells

  • Snack foods – potato, corn, and tortilla chips; candy; packaged or microwave popcorn

  • Solid fats – stick margarine and semi-solid vegetable shortening

  • Pre-mixed products – cake mix, pancake mix, and chocolate drink mix

Be a Trans Fat Detective

  • When shopping, read the labels and watch out for “partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredients. Even if the food claims to be trans fat free, this ingredient makes it suspect.

  • With margarine, choose the soft-tub versions, and make sure the product has zero grams of trans fat and no partially hydrogenated oils.

  • When eating out, put fried foods, biscuits, and other baked goods on your “skip” list. Avoid these products unless you know that the restaurant has eliminated trans fat.

  • Avoid fast food. Most states have no labeling regulations for fast food, and it can even be advertised as cholesterol-free when cooked in vegetable oil.

  • When eating out, ask your server or counter person what type of oil your food will be cooked in. If it’s partially hydrogenated oil, run the other way or ask if your food can be prepared using olive oil, which most restaurants have in stock.

Getting More Good, Unsaturated Fats in Your Diet

Okay, so you realize you need to avoid saturated fat and trans fat… but how do you get the healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats everyone keeps talking about?

The best sources of healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, and fish.

  • Cook with olive oil. Use olive oil for stovetop cooking, rather than butter, stick margarine, or lard. For baking, try canola or vegetable oil.

  • Eat more avocados. Try them in sandwiches or salads or make guacamole. Along with being loaded with heart and brain-healthy fats, they make for a filling and satisfying meal.

  • Reach for the nuts. You can also add nuts to vegetable dishes or use them instead of breadcrumbs on chicken or fish.

  • Snack on olives. Olives are high in healthy monounsaturated fats. But unlike most other high-fat foods, they make for a low-calorie snack when eaten on their own. Try them plain or make a tapenade for dipping.

  • Dress your own salad. Commercial salad dressings are often high in saturated fat or made with damaged trans fat oils. Create your own healthy dressings with high-quality, cold-pressed olive oil, flaxseed oil, or sesame oil.

Damaged Fat: When Good Fats go Bad

A good fat can become bad if heat, light, or oxygen damages it. Polyunsaturated fats are the most fragile. Oils that are high in polyunsaturated fats (such as flaxseed oil) must be refrigerated and kept in an opaque container. Cooking with these oils also damages the fats. Never use oils, seeds, or nuts after they begin to smell or taste rank or bitter.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Superfats for the Brain and Heart

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat. While all types of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are good for you, omega-3 fats are proving to be especially beneficial.

We’re still learning about the many benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, but research has shown that they can:

  • Prevent and reduce the symptoms of depression

  • Protect against memory loss and dementia

  • Reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer

  • Ease arthritis, joint pain, and inflammatory skin conditions

  • Support a healthy pregnancy

Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Mental Health

Omega-3 fatty acids are highly concentrated in the brain. Research indicates that they play a vital role in cognitive function (memory, problem-solving abilities, etc.) as well as emotional health.

Getting more omega-3 fatty acids in your diet can help you battle fatigue, sharpen your memory, and balance your mood. Studies have shown that omega-3s can be helpful in the treatment of depression, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and bipolar disorder.

There are several different types of omega-3 fatty acids:

  • EPA and DHA – Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) have the most research to back up their health benefits. Both are found in abundance in cold-water fatty fish.

  • ALA – Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) comes from plants. Studies suggest that it’s a less potent form of omega-3 than EPA and DHA. The best sources include flaxseed, walnuts, and canola oil.

Fish: The best food source of omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fats are a type of essential fatty acid, meaning they are essential to health, but your body can’t make them. You can only get omega-3 fats from food.

The best sources are fatty fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, or sardines, or high-quality cold-water fish oil supplements. Canned albacore tuna and lake trout can also be good sources, depending on how the fish were raised and processed.

Some people avoid seafood because they worry about mercury or other possible toxins in fish. However, most experts agree that the benefits of eating two servings a week of these cold-water fatty fish outweigh the risks.

If you’re a vegetarian or you don’t like fish, you can still get your omega-3 fix by eating algae (which is high in DHA) or taking a fish oil or algae supplement.

Choosing the best omega-3 supplement

With so many omega-3 and fish oil supplements and fortified foods, making the right choice can be tricky. These guidelines can help.

  • Avoid products that don’t list the source of their omega-3s. Does the package list the source of omega-3 fatty acids? If not, chances are it’s ALA (sometimes from plain old canola or soybean oil), which most Westerners already get plenty of.

  • Don’t fall for fortified foods. Many fortified foods (such as margarine, eggs, and milk) claim to be high in omega-3 fatty acids, but often, the real amount of omega-3 is miniscule.

  • Look for the total amount of EPA and DHA on the label. The bottle may say 1,000 milligrams of fish oil, but it’s the amount of omega-3 that matters. Read the small print. It may show only 300 mg of EPA and DHA (sometimes listed as “omega-3 fatty acids”), which means you’d have to take three capsules to get close to 1,000 milligrams of omega-3.

  • Choose supplements that are mercury-free, pharmaceutical grade and molecularly distilled.Make sure the supplement contains both DHA and EPA. They may be hard to find, but supplements with higher concentrations of EPA are better.

Fish oil supplements can cause stomach upset and belching, especially when you first start taking them. To reduce these side effects, take them with food. You may also want to start with a low dose and gradually increase it, or divide the dose among your three meals.

How much omega-3 do I need?

The American Heart Association recommends consuming 1–3 grams per day of EPA and DHA (1 gram = 1,000 milligrams). For the treatment of mental health issues, including depression and ADHD, look for supplements that are high in EPA, which has been shown to elevate and stabilize mood. Aim for at least 1,000 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids per day.

MUFA’s – Healthy Fat

MUFAs are monounsaturated fatty acids. MUFAs are considered a healthy type of fat. If your diet includes unsaturated fats such as MUFAs (and polyunsaturated fats) instead of saturated fats and trans fats, you may gain certain health benefits.

Consuming monounsaturated fatty acids may help lower your risk of heart disease by improving risk factors. For instance, MUFAs may lower your total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels but maintain or increase high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. MUFAs may also help normalize blood clotting. And some research shows that MUFAs may also benefit insulin levels and blood sugar control, which can be especially helpful if you have type 2 diabetes.

Other benefits of MUFA’s include:

  • They provide antioxidants such as vitamin E and selenium

  • Small amounts of healthy fats help the body absorb vital nutrients, including fat soluble vitamins (A, E, D, K) from other whole foods

  • Including healthy fatty acids in your diet in appropriate quantities can help prevent and treat: diabetes, heart disease, cancer, obesity, musculo skeletal pain, and inflammatory conditions

  • Some research suggests that diets including MUFA can have a beneficial effect on cholesterol, blood pressure, blood clotting and inflammation

  • Omega-3 fatty acids are necessary for proper brain growth and development. They are anti-inflammatory and may be helpful in the prevention and treatment of many diseases.

MUFAs are a central part of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. But even if you don’t follow a Mediterranean-style diet, you can include more of these MUFA-rich foods in your diet:

  • Avocados

  • Canola oil

  • Nuts, such as almonds, cashews, pecans and macadamias

  • Nut butters

  • Olive oil

  • Olives

  • Peanut oil

Just don’t go overboard. All fats, including MUFAs, are high in calories, so use MUFAs only in moderation. Consume MUFA-rich foods instead of other fatty foods, not in addition to them. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that fat make up no more than 20 to 35 percent of your daily calories.

Simple Carbohydrates

Also called simple sugars. Simple sugars are typically sweet-tasting (glucose derives from the Greek word for “sweet”) and are rapidly metabolized by the body and converted into energy. Simple sugars need almost no digesting. They can enter the bloodstream immediately. Examples of simple carb’s are: table sugar, fruit juice, candy, fruit, syrups, etc.

Simple carbs (except fructose) are typically high on the glycemic index, so they tend to cause a rapid rise in blood sugar. They are ideal for energy but not so good for appetite and blood glucose control.

Both simple and complex carbs have one purpose: to provide energy. Your body breaks down carbs for immediate fuel. This is where simple carbs do have some benefit. The Franklin Institute describes complex carbohydrates as time-release capsules. It takes longer for your body to make use of the energy in a complex carbohydrate. Simple carbs have fewer components, so the breakdown is quick. If you need fast fuel, you can get that from a simple carb, but it may take longer with complex.

Simple carbohydrates are made of simple molecules that are easy for your body to breakdown and deliver sugar to the bloodstream quickly. Bad carbs are in the simple carbohydrate category. White sugar and white flour based foods are examples of simple carbohydrates. They breakdown quickly causing a fast spike in blood sugar.

That’s where you get a rush of energy, then a big drop — and your mood goes right along with it. Plus, when too much sugar floods the system all at once, your body can’t use it all for energy and converts it to… guess what? Fat.

Yes, your body ultimately converts excess sugar into glycogen and then into fat for storage. And worse, constantly overwhelming the cells with high levels of sugar is associated with blood sugar related diseases like hypoglycemia,diabetes, and insulin resistance.

Not all simple carbohydrates are “bad” bad carbs. Some, like fruit, are simple, nutritious carbs. Fresh fruit gives us enzymes, vitamins, minerals and fiber.

Milk products also offer important nutritional benefits like protein, vitamins, and fats. The point is to recognize that these simple carbohydrates, that are not so “bad”, are still fast sugars that do not sustain our energy in the same way that complex carbohydrates do.

When you are feeling fatigued or run down, a simple carbohydrate may perk you up temporarily. Eating sugar gives you immediate access to fuel. There are times when that is an advantage. When the level of sugar in your blood drops, you may feel sluggish or even ill. Eating a simple carb, such as a piece of candy, may raise your blood sugar and give you the burst you need. This is why diabetics carry simple sugars with them in case their blood sugar plummets unexpectedly.

Complex Carbohydrates

Also called complex sugars. These are many sugars put together. Because the molecular structure of complex carbohydrates is more complicated, the body cannot metabolize them (convert them) into energy as quickly as simple carbs. This means complex carbs raise blood glucose levels more slowly.

complex carbs retain their nutrients, wheat germ, bran and the kernel, during the milling process. They are a source of dietary fiber and are digested more slowly in the body.

Complex carbs are a source of dietary fiber. Fiber is an essential nutrient in the diet that helps to regulate the digestive system. It helps push food through the digestive tract as well as bulks up stools to aid in the elimination of waste products. This prevents common digestive discomforts such as constipation, bloating and gas. The smooth elimination of waste from the body also aids in removing toxins and undigested materials from the body. This is beneficial for preventing illnesses and for long-term weight loss success.

Carbs are the primary source of fuel used by the body and brain to perform its necessary physical and mental functions. Insufficient carbs in the diet lead to lethargy, weakness, and difficulty concentrating and thinking, as well as low moods and irritability. Complex carbs found in whole-grains, vegetables and fruits are preferred over processed foods, such as packaged granola bars, cakes and candy, since they digest at a slower rate. This releases energy to the body over a longer period of time, keeping energy levels stabilized.

Complex carbs are a source of essential vitamins and minerals needed in the body for normal functioning. Vitamins and minerals are essential for hormonal balance, reproductive health, normal skin, nails and hair growth and good eyesight, among others. High-fiber fruits and vegetables, such as berries, artichokes and cabbage, are a source of antioxidants, which aid in preventing certain cancers and heart disease.

Whole-grain foods, including breads and rice, are also a source of the B vitamins, which provide energy to the body and prevent muscle weakness.

The most common form of polysaccharide complex carb is starch, which is found in plants. Common plant-based starchy foods include breakfast cereals, bread, potatoes, pasta and rice.

Word of Caution: Consumption of too many carbs will send your blood sugar hormones through the roof! Too much insulin leads to fat storage and subsequently to type II diabetes. The best way to prevent this disease is by not overloading yourself with sugar, especially processed, unnatural sugars like the bad carbs listed above.