The changing reputation of fat and cholesterol

Fat is bad, right?  It is highly caloric, adds pounds and inches to the waistline, and is one cause of heart disease.  That is what we have been told for, well, a long time.  And don’t even mention cholesterol.  That guy packed his bags and was chased out of town long ago.

Not so fast. Healthy eating recommendations are changing once again.  It is enough to make a dietitian cry, or at least eat crow.

A new set of Dietary Guidelines will be out later this year, and the advisory committee has published its report for consideration.  These current recommendations are based on better research than in the past.  Here are some of the committee’s recommendations concerning fat and cholesterol.

  • 1.  Replace saturated fat (SFA) with unsaturated fat (PUFA).  This is not really new because we have been prompted for several years to eat less fatty meat and fewer whole fat dairy items, both sources of saturated fat.  In place of those foods folks are encouraged to include low-fat or non-fat dairy, fish, oils, nuts, dried beans, and monounsaturated sources such as avocados in daily eating plans.

Total fat is not considered the issue, but the type of fat is.

  • 2.   Along with the idea above, another recommendation is to eat less red and processed meats.  This will not only improve our health, but that of the environment as well.  Interesting that the committee chose to address the environment.
  • 3.  Do not be overly concerned with dietary cholesterol.  It used to be that the daily limit for cholesterol consumption was 300 mg. Eggs weigh in around 200 mg, so we were advised to limit eggs to one per day. But dietary cholesterol has lost some of its importance as far as heart disease is concerned.

Worthy of note, diabetics are still cautioned to not overdo their cholesterol intake due to heart disease risk.  And blood cholesterol, the type that is measured with blood tests, may still be a concern.  A person’s LDL or low density cholesterol, if elevated, can increase one’s risk of heart disease.

There are other recommendations to limit sugar, refined carbs, and alcohol in our diets.  And the committee is also concerned about young people and their high consumption of caffeinated beverages.

It will be interesting to see how many of the recommendations the Department of Health and Human Services and the USDA decide to include in the new Dietary Guidelines.

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What color is your fat?

Did you know that the fat that we eat is an actual nutrient, being a concentrated source of energy (meaning calories) and helping our bodies absorb the fat-soluble vitamins including D, E, and K?  Fat can also be considered an organ serving to insulate our body, release hormones, and protect bones, nerves, and organs.

There are different types of fat, or adipose tissue, in our bodies.  Fat can be defined by where it is in the body such as visceral or abdominal fat, the type that also surrounds our organs.  The body also has subcutaneous fat, the type of fat that is beneath the skin.  Fat is also classified by color: white, brown, and beige.

White fat it the stuff that just sits there, making our jeans feel tight.  Its role is to store energy and produce hormones.

Brown fat has enjoyed an increasingly positive reputation.  Thin individuals tend to have more of this fat than those who are overweight as do those who live in northern climates. Brown fat is desirable because it burns calories stored in white fat.

Babies have the most brown fat of all ages and this fat helps to keep them warm.  We lose brown fat as we get older.  Shivering increases the activity of this fat as will sleeping in a cool bedroom.

Research is ongoing to determine how to activate the brown fat to burn more white fat or increase the amount in the body.

The newest member of the fat family is beige fat. This fat also burns energy or calories stored in white fat.  But just like brown fat, beige fat is not found in large amounts in adults.  Could there be a way to turn white fat into the calorie-burning darker fats?

Researchers are working on that idea in animal models. By increasing the amount of beige and brown fats we might be able to reduce belly fat and the deep fat that accumulates between and around our organs.  This in turn could lead to decreased obesity and chronic conditions such as diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, and inflammation.

The research is in its infancy, and results are limited to animal studies.  But what an intriguing idea and one filled with hope for improved health.

Heart healthy eating–part two

In the last post I offered three ways to decrease risk of heart disease: increase fiber with fruits and veggies; choose good carbs such as whole grains (also sources of fiber); and avoid the unhealthy fats.  Here are a few more suggestions.

4.  Replace unhealthy fats with healthy versions.

Healthy fats include unsaturated types found in olive oil, canola oil, nuts, seeds, avocados, soy products, flax, and wheat germ.  Fatty fish are recommended, too, for the heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.   These include salmon, sardines, mackerel, and halibut.  Try to include two servings a week.

Do you like a spread on your bread or potato?  Choose soft, tube margarines without tropical oils over the stick variety. Or, drizzle some extra virgin olive oil on your bread.  But just a bit.  A tablespoon is about 125 calories.

Remember that even the healthy fats pack a lot of calories.  So replace the unhealthy fats with healthy fats and do not just add them to your current intake.  

And, avoid fried foods.  Bake, broil, and roast instead.

5.  Reduce salt.

We eat too much salt.  People who are salt sensitive respond with elevated blood pressure. The guidelines for salt are now at 1500 mg per day, according to the American Heart Association.  The Dietary Guidelines are a bit more lenient, suggesting 2300 mg per day for healthy folks.  To decrease your salt intake, look for foods with less than 200 mg per serving.  

Limit processed foods such as cured meats, pickled foods, canned foods with salt, and savory snacks.  Soy sauce is a big offender.  Instead, try spices, herbs, and lemon to flavor dishes.  Choose the lower salt versions of beef and chicken broth.  These may not be at eye level on the grocery shelves, but they are available!

Eating more fruits and vegetables will help, too, because these foods are natural sources of potassium and can help lower blood pressure. 

With these guidelines in mind, check out some of the instant rice and potato mixes the next time you are shopping and see how much sodium is in a serving.  You will be surprised.

6.  Review healthy eating plans to help make dietary changes. 

There are several eating plans that can help put these recommendations together. The Mediterranean Diet in one that I like.  It includes whole grains, fruits and veggies, less meat, and, of course, olive oil,  It is not a low-fat diet, but a well-rounded one. 

Or consider the Dash Diet.  This diet plan is receiving good press as a way to lower blood pressure, help with weight loss, and prevent kidney stones.  The Dash Diet is a medium-fat eating plan, focusing on fruits and veggies, whole grains, and low-fat dairy.

7.  Reduce the added sugars that you consume

I don’t think that sugar is a poison or the cause of all our ills.  But I do think that we eat too much in the form of baked goods and sweetened drinks.  A person can drink a lot of calories in the form of sugar before feeling full.  And  a high intake of sugar can cause weight gain and an increase in triglycerides, which can lead to heart disease. Get your sweet fix from fruit, limit yourself to one serving of juice per day, and drink water flavored with lemon or lime.  I do like stevia for an artificial sweetener.  But don’t overdo the artificial sweeteners, either.

Bonus:  A word on chocolate.

Yes, dark chocolate is heart-healthy.  The thought is that compounds in cocoa may protect against heart disease by reducing inflammation and improving cholesterol levels. But remember that chocolate does contain fat, and therefore is a source of considerable calories if eaten in large amounts.  If you enjoy chocolate, choose dark chocolate with at least 60% cocoa solids.

Which suggestion will you try today?