Beyond the Headlines: The Truth About Fat and Cholesterol

For decades, fat and cholesterol have been targeted as prime enemies of a healthy lifestyle. In the 1990s, the market adjusted so drastically to introduce fat-free products that engineered fat substitutes such as Olestra became household names. However, like most fads, the fat-free movement has also gained opposition in recent years. Splashy headlines now claim that “butter is back.” As is usually the case, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

While recent research is showing that the negative association between fat and poor health is not as simple as was once believed, this doesn’t mean eating steak for dinner every night is the best choice (sorry!). On the other hand, a fat-free diet is by no means the healthiest way to eat, as we’ll soon explain.

They key is to understand how different fats and dietary cholesterol affect heart health, weight gain and overall wellness. Here are some common myths that may be causing you confusion:

Myth: Fat Is Unhealthy
First things first: Eating some fat is essential to a balanced, healthful diet. Fats supply us with energy, protect our organs and provide insulation. Fats are also crucial to immunity and reproduction, and they’re the storage houses for the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.

Understanding the different fats and the roles they play in the body is imperative to incorporating them appropriately:

Some unsaturated fats improve blood cholesterol and have an anti-inflammatory effect in the body, making them helpful for the prevention of cardiovascular disease. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (including omega-3s) are found in fatty fish like salmon, vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, avocados, organic soy, hemp/chia/flax seeds and even leafy green veggies.

Saturated fats, most of which are found in meat and dairy, and trans fats, introduced to processed foods through the hydrogenation process, are those that most people typically think of as “bad” due to their association with increased LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.

However, the idea of “good” fat and “bad” fat foods is oversimplified—and not how we think of food at Canyon Ranch. Here are a few examples of why it doesn’t make sense to think of fats in black-or-white terms:

  • Some unsaturated fats (omega-6s) may promote inflammation in the body.
  • Coconut oil and dark chocolate are two examples of foods that are high in saturated fat that may not raise LDL levels.
  • Only full-fat dairy contains conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fatty acid compound that may increase lean body mass and decrease body fat in people who engage in cardiovascular and strength training exercise.
  • Full-fat and low-fat dairy may also help us feel fuller longer than fat-free dairy.

The quality of the fat also influences its health profile. We recommend avoiding conventionally processed vegetables oils, which are exposed to high heat and can develop rancid fat molecules; we emphasize cold-pressed, preferably organic olive oil and cold-pressed, organic canola oil as the primary cooking fats. Organic dairy is also a step up from conventional choices. And, “the type of meat you choose is going to make a difference in terms of whether animal fat is a negative thing or not,” says Lisa Powell, M.S., R.D.N., director of nutrition at Canyon Ranch in Tucson. “Most of the animal protein we eat in this country is raised on grain, which makes the fat in the meat more potentially inflammatory, whereas grass-fed meat contains a fair amount of anti-inflammatory omega-3s. When it comes to fat, you truly are what you eat—and what your food ate.” 

Myth: Eating Foods High in Cholesterol Raises Blood Cholesterol
High blood cholesterol levels are associated with increased risk for heart disease, but the cholesterol you eat (dietary cholesterol) has less of an effect on your blood cholesterol than you might realize. For most of us, our blood cholesterol isn’t notably impacted by dietary cholesterol, and research has found that increasing consumption of cholesterol-rich foods, such as eggs, in otherwise healthy adults does not increase the risk for heart disease.

Certain people however are genetically predisposed to have higher blood cholesterol. For them, managing dietary cholesterol (below 300 mg/day) is recommended to maintain healthy blood levels. Genetic testing is close to being able to determine if you are a “cholesterol-responder” or not; for now, it’s best to talk with your doctor about your blood cholesterol results to determine if dietary changes should be addressed.

While foods high in cholesterol are not to blame for most cases of high blood cholesterol, most saturated fats do raise blood cholesterol and should therefore be eaten in moderation.

Myth: Eating Fat Makes You Fat, So a Fat-Free Diet Is the Healthiest Way to Eat
Fat does contain more calories than the other two nutrients your body uses for energy, carbohydrates and protein, and reducing your fat intake will lower your overall calorie consumption and help you lose weight. But a completely fat-free diet is not only close to impossible to keep up, but also unsustainable for your body. In your quest to banish fat from your plate, you’ll likely increase your consumption of highly processed foods made to mimic their fat-containing counterparts. Food companies add salt, sugar and thickening agents—such as malodextrin, modified cornstarch and tapioca starch, all of which our bodies break down into sugar—to recreate the mouth-feel, texture and taste that fat naturally provides. While the nutrition label may read lower in fat, these foods can actually contain more calories and are often less satisfying, causing you to eat more in order to feel full.

Finally, consider the fact that fat provides some of the pleasure we derive from our food. Fat provides flavor to cooking through oils and sauce, and the rich taste of avocado or salmon is in part due to the fats these foods contain. Limiting these foods in your diet will not only leave you without the health benefits that they provide, but will also rob your diet of flavor and variety.

Myth: Saturated Fat Doesn’t Cause Heart Disease
The flip-side of the outdated anti-fat movement of the 1980s and 1990s is the current trend toward re-embracing saturated fat. Recent studies suggest that saturated fat may not influence heart disease risk quite as much as we once thought, while carbohydrates have a greater influence on cardiovascular health than previously known.

While we can probably loosen up a bit on our decades-old ban on saturated fat, it’s still best eaten in small quantities. “You can’t throw the baby out with the bath water—there is plenty of research that indicates that a diet that’s high in saturated fat tends to shift the metabolism toward more LDL cholesterol,” Powell says. The conflicting data may stem from a growing understanding that some people are more fat-sensitive, while others are more carb-sensitive. Until we can accurately determine who’s who, it’s best to practice moderation on both fronts. “You don’t need to completely avoid fat but you need to pay attention to saturated fat and avoid trans fat,” Powell says. “And you definitely need to watch the processed carbs and sugars.” (Note: The FDA has mandated that all manufacturers remove added trans fats from processed foods by 2018.)

Keep in mind that there are other concerns: A diet high in saturated-fat-rich foods can affect your cancer risk and your brain health. Plus, even if your cholesterol levels don’t rise with the addition of a lot more saturated fat, your calorie intake may go up, which could add pounds to your waistline. The same is true even for unsaturated fats. “If you gain weight it’s not going to be good for your heart disease risk, regardless of what you ate to get there,” Powell explains.

The key is to remember that eliminating any single nutrient from your diet and replacing it with another is not going to strike the balance your body needs. A diet low in refined carbohydrates, with an emphasis on unsaturated fats, is the best way to apply research to your own life. Use small amounts of solid fats such as butter or coconut oil when appropriate, avoid margarine or any other hydrogenated products, and enjoy foods high in saturated fat such as red meat, cheese and other full-fat dairy, in limited amounts.

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