The Facts About Fat: How Fat Affects Cholesterol & Cardiovascular Disease

There were a lot of fads in the nineties, but one of the biggest was the fat-free diet (or a diet with the least amount of fat possible). By now, we all know that didn’t work. But do you know why? Fat is an important nutrient that helps the body absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. It also provides our brains with a sense of satiety. How does any of this relate to cardiovascular disease? Research shows that lifestyle plays an essential role in the prevention of cardiovascular disease. We can help prevent it by decreasing our total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol (i.e., “bad cholesterol”) and triglycerides, combined with physical activity and diet modification. Ideally, we should consume 25–35% of our daily calories from fat. Let’s take a look at the different types of fats and the effects they have on the body.

Good Fats vs. Bad Fats

You’ve probably heard about “good” fat and “bad fat.” How do you tell the difference? Saturated fat is solid at room temperature and can be found in foods like bacon, coconut, cream sauce, poultry skin, high-fat dairy, egg yolks and beef. If you consume more than you need, it will cause your total and LDL cholesterol to increase. Saturated fat is listed on food labels. It is recommended that you not consume more than 7% of your total calories from saturated fat per day. Saturated fat, as you may have guessed, is notgood fat.

Unsaturated fat is usually liquid at refrigerator temperature. It is primarily found in vegetables and vegetable products. There are two types of this “good” fat: monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat. Monounsaturated fat, when substituted for saturated fat, has been shown to decrease total and LDL cholesterol. It is found in avocados, canola oil, almonds, olives and peanut butter. Polyunsaturated fat is found in food products derived from plant sources, like safflower, corn, sunflower and soybean oils. It also can decrease total and LDL cholesterol if you use it to replace the saturated fat in your diet. Consuming unsalted nuts, about one ounce per day or five ounces per week, is another easy way to help lower LDL levels and total cholesterol. However, remember that unsaturated fat sources like nuts should be used to replace saturated fat sources, rather than simply added, to your diet—otherwise, the increase in caloric intake may result in an increase in body weight.

Fatty Acids Are Your Friends

We’ve come a long way since the nineties. Since then, we’ve learned about the importance of the omega-3 fatty acids. DHA and EPA are long-chain omega-3 fatty acids found in cold water fish like mackerel, herring, trout, sardines, tuna and salmon. These fish oils have a cardio-protective effect that decreases triglyceride levels and total cholesterol. ALA is also an omega-3 fatty acid, which is converted into EPA in the body. ALA is found in different plant sources, including flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil and soybeans. How much is enough to get the protection you need? Two servings per week of the above fish is recommended, but you can also talk to your doctor about supplementing your diet with fish oils. The current recommendations are: 500 milligrams per week for primary prevention, 1 gram per day (g/d) for secondary prevention and 2–4 g/d for lowering your triglyceride levels.

Not Fat, But Still Your Friends

Plant sterols and stanols are not technically fats, but they are present in the fatty tissues of plants and animals in very small amounts. These substances also have been shown to assist in lowering the total cholesterol and LDLs without lowering the HDLs (i.e., “good” cholesterol). They work by blocking the absorption of cholesterol in the small intestine. Some research shows that plant sterols and stanols may affect absorption of carotenoids due to the affect they have on the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.

What are carotenoids? They are found in foods with vitamin A. Some plant sources include orange-colored foods like carrots, raw mango and peaches, but carotenoids are also found in spinach, kale and red peppers. One serving of these vegetables will satisfy your daily need for vitamin A. Plant stanols and sterols can be found in fortified margarines, juice, and granola bars; you will find the words “plant sterol/stanols” on the ingredient list. The beneficial amount of plant sterols and stanols is not exact, although 2–3 grams per day is considered safe. Until more research has been done, however, continue to make smart choices and read your labels when using margarine or other packaged goods.

Fiber is another healthful substance that has been shown to decrease total and LDL cholesterol, along with a diet low in saturated fat. Thirty grams per day of fiber, with 7–13 grams coming from soluble fiber, is beneficial in the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease. Soluble fiber food sources include oats, apples, oranges, Concord grapes, peaches, grapefruit, beans, beets, carrots, sesame seeds, and psyllium, which is found in dietary supplements and cereals.

In order to prevent disease, many Americans need to get used to a diet that consists of variety of foods, and a diet that is not in excess. There is no true “magic” pill. We need to take control of our own health. There are many factors that contribute to an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, but one thing is certain: eating a healthy, balanced diet will help keep you on track, and keep your risk of disease low.