The major kinds of fats in the foods we eat are saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and trans fatty acids. Saturated fats, trans fats, and dietary cholesterol raise blood cholesterol levels. A high level of cholesterol in the blood is a major risk factor for coronary artery disease, which can lead to a heart attack.
Limiting the amount of fats in your diet and choosing healthier fats can help to reduce that risk. Here is some information to help you sort it out and make changes that can improve your health.
There are 2 steps to lowering your bad fat intake—Lowering intake of unheathy fats and replacing them with healthy fats.
Foods often have more than one type of fat. As a general rule, foods that have mostly saturated fat are thicker (like butter, lard, or cream), while those that are mostly unsaturated are thinner (like oils). Knowing some basics may help you identify and avoid these less healthy options.
The body uses saturated fatty acids to function, but we eat and drink more than our bodies need. Some of the foods that are rich in saturated fat include:
Saturated fatty acids are also abundant in oils like coconut oil, palm kernel oil, and palm oil. These oils will be semi-solid at room temperature.
Many snack foods and fried foods are also rich in saturated fat. Check the Nutrition Facts label to find the saturated fat content of a specific food. Look for oils listed above in the ingredient list.
Fortunately, for many of these foods that are naturally rich in saturated fat, there are low-fat versions. Some taste better than others, so try a variety of them to find ones you like. Use these lower-fat versions or occasionally indulge in smaller portions of regular fat foods.
Also, try to choose naturally lower-fat foods. For example, have fruit and gingersnaps for dessert instead of ice cream. Consider eating fish and vegetarian-based dinners a few times a week in place of meat.
Trans fats are made through a process called hydrogenation. This process takes a vegetable oil, which is naturally high in unsaturated fatty acids and adds hydrogen molecules to it to make it more saturated and more solid.
Trans fats can make food taste good and add texture. You will find them in many processed snack foods. Foods that may contain trans fats include:
Look in your pantry and check for trans fats listed on the Nutrition Facts food label. You may also see hydrogenated oil or partially hydrogenated oil listed as ingredients. This means the food containstrans fat and should be avoided if possible.
Dietary cholesterol affects cholesterol levels to a much lesser degree than was originally thought and also much less than saturated and trans fats. It is found only in animal foods, not plant foods. Our bodies use cholesterol to carry out necessary bodily functions, but we take in more than we need. Dietary guidelines advise that people consume less than 300 milligrams of dietary cholesterol a day.
You should not eliminate fats from your diet completely, but you can replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats. Since saturated fat and cholesterol are often found together in foods, by limiting saturated fat, cholesterol intake will go down as well.
You can feel good about eating unsaturated fats, in proper amounts. Keep in mind that unsaturated fats still deliver as many calories as the saturated varieties, so keep reasonable portion sizes. There are two types, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. The difference is in their chemical make up, but all that means is that either fat can be used instead of saturated and trans fats.
Unsaturated fats can be found in a variety of foods you are familiar with. Some examples include:
Monounsaturated fats are similar and can also be substitutes for less healthy fats. You will find them in olive, canola, or peanut oils. Avacados are also a good source of monounsaturated fat.
Change takes time, so go slowly and make small adjustments to get started. Tips to help you work these fats into your diet include:
If you do not like something, try something different. There is a wide variety of choices you can make that will help you cut back on the amount of saturated and trans fats that you eat.
Since both the saturated fat in butter and the trans fat in margarine can raise cholesterol levels, which is the best one to eat? There is no definitive answer to this question. When choosing your spread however, remember that softer is better. Whipped butter has less saturated fat than regular solid butter. Also, liquid or soft margarine in a tub have less saturated and trans fats. Consider substituting an oil-based spread (like olive oil) instead of using butter or margarine.
You can also make easy substitutions while cooking or baking. Try liquid vegetable oils such as canola, safflower, soybean, or olive instead of butter or margarine. Remember that whatever you choose, make sure that you limit the amount of fat you are adding to your food.
Academy of Nutrition Dietetics
American Heart Association
Heart and Stroke Association of Canada
About cholesterol. American Heart Association website. Available at: http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Cholesterol/AboutCholesterol/About-Cholesterol_UCM_001220_Article.jsp. Updated July 31, 2014. Accessed December 9, 2014.
Dietary guidelines for Americans 2010. United States Department of Health and Human Services website. Available at: http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2010/DietaryGuidelines2010.pdf. Updated December 2010. Accessed December 9, 2014.
Dietary interventions for cardiovascular disease prevention. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what. Updated October 20, 2014. Accessed December 9, 2014.
Mead A, Atkinson G, et al. Dietetic guidelines on food and nutrition in the secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease-evidence from systematic reviews of randomized controlled trials (second update). J Hum Nutr Diet. 2006;19:401-419.
Monounsaturated fats. American Heart Association website. Available at: http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/HealthyEating/Monounsaturated-Fats_UCM_301460_Article.jsp. Updated August 5, 2014. Accessed December 9, 2014.
Polyunsaturated fats. American Heart Association website. Available at: http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/HealthyEating/Polyunsaturated-Fats_UCM_301461_Article.jsp. Updated October 31, 2014. Accessed December 9, 2014.
Trans fats. American Heart Association website. Available at: http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/HealthyEating/Trans-Fats_UCM_301120_Article.jsp. Updated August 5, 2014. Accessed December 9, 2014.
What are solid fats? United States Department of Agriculture Choose My Plate website. Available at: http://www.choosemyplate.gov/weight-management-calories/calories/solid-fats.html. Accessed December 9, 2014.
Willett WC. Trans fatty acids and cardiovascular disease-epidemiological data. Atheroscler Suppl. 2006;7:5-8.
Zaloga GP, Harvey KA, et al. Trans fatty acids and coronary heart disease. Nutr Clin Pract. 2006;5:505-512.
Last reviewed December 2014 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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