By Sarah Larocco, MSN, FNP-C
The American Heart Association says a body definitely needs some fat. Dietary fats keep the machine that is the body humming by creating energy, protecting organs, stimulating cell growth, producing needed hormones, and helping the body absorb key nutrients.
“The average American diet is already heavy in fat,” says Sarah Larocco, MSN, FNP-C with Novant Health Chair City Family Medicine. “Our food choices also greatly impact cholesterol levels.”
The so-called “good fats” are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, while “bad fats” are trans-fat and saturated fats. The bad fats are responsible for raising the bad type of cholesterol in the body, which is called low density lipoprotein (LDL). This type of cholesterol can increase the risk for atherosclerosis, which is plaque build-up in the blood vessels that limits blood flow. Good fats can lower the levels of LDL, reducing your risk of atherosclerosis and therefore reducing the risk for heart attack and stroke.
According to the AHA, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (“good fats”) provide Vitamin E to our diet, an antioxidant that most Americans need more of. Polyunsaturated fats also provide omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which the body needs but can’t produce on its own.
Examples of monounsaturated fats include olive, canola, sunflower, peanut, and sesame oils. They are also found in olives, avocados, peanut butter, almonds, macadamia nuts, and cashews.
Examples of polyunsaturated fats are found in soybean oil, corn oil, and fatty fish like salmon, trout, or tuna. Walnuts, flaxseed, soybeans, tofu, and sunflower and pumpkin seeds are other good sources of this fat.
Saturated fat (“bad fat”) is naturally occurring and is found in high-fat cuts of meat and chicken with skin on it. It’s also in non-skim dairy products like milk, cream, and yogurt, as well as in ice cream, cheese, and butter. Limit meals with animal products to once a day. 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.
Most of the trans-fat we consume is partially hydrogenated oils in processed food. These are also “bad fats” and are used by food manufacturers to improve texture, flavor, and shelf life of food. It can be found in commercially-baked cookies and cakes or snack food such as chips and crackers, margarine, and fried fast food. Other foods high in trans-fat are frozen pizza, candy bars, and hydrogenated cooking oils. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urge people to keep trans-fat to a minimum as it contributes to an increase in LDL or “bad cholesterol.”
The AHA recommends that adults would benefit from lowering LDL cholesterol by reducing their intake of trans-fat and limiting consumption of saturated fat to 5 to 6% of total calories. “Moderation is the key word,” says Larocco. “For example, if a label for cookies says 0.5 grams of trans-fat per serving (serving size 2 cookies) and you eat 10 cookies, the amount of trans-fat adds up fast.” Larocco recommends reading the complete list of ingredients and staying away from products with partially hydrogenated oil and added sugars.
“Our busy schedules today lead many of us to reach for fast food or simple food options which are pre-made; however, we need to limit consumption of foods that come in boxes, bags, packages, or from the fryer,” says Larocco. Check the number of ingredients listed on a product. In general if a label contains more than five ingredients, leave that item behind and go to the fresh fruit and vegetable section. Your heart and body will thank you!