Which Fat is Best for Heart Health?

Butter

If you are more confused than ever about dietary fats, you’re not alone. Can a high fat diet help you lose body fat? Which fat is best for heart health – butter, coconut oil or vegetable oil?

What is Cholesterol & Why is it Essential?
Cholesterol is an essential component of all cell membranes and a precursor to hormones, vitamin D and bile acids (needed for the digestion of fat). It is so important that your body regulates cholesterol balance to ensure your cells receive a continuous supply of cholesterol.

How does High LDL Contribute to Cardiovascular Disease?

Though cholesterol is critical for life, low density lipoprotein cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, is considered a risk factor for heart disease because excess LDL can lead to an increase in plaque buildup in your arteries. Think of this process like a garden hose with gunk stuck in it. The gunk interferes with water flowing through the hose. If too much debris gets in there, no water will flow through.  Likewise, plaque in your arteries will decrease the amount of blood that moves through your arteries at one time and a complete blockage could lead to a heart attack or stroke.  Now, this is a simplistic view, especially considering LDL isn’t just one particle but instead, several that contain different amounts of cholesterol. Some research suggests that smaller, more dense LDL particles are more artery clogging. However, in addition to particle size, total number of LDL particles and oxidation of LDL contribute to the disease process.

As LDL particles travel through the bloodstream, excess LDL particles can stick to artery walls (particularly walls that are damaged due to smoking, high blood pressure and other insults). Trapped LDL becomes oxidized and sets off an inflammatory cascade resulting in the development of plaque (gunk) stuck to arteries – atherosclerosis.

Coronary Artery Disease

How Can I Lower my LDL Cholesterol?

Cholesterol in food has little effect on your blood cholesterol.

Years ago we were told to stay away from shrimp, eggs and other high cholesterol foods. Yet this advice wasn’t based on sound science – cholesterol in food has little effect on your blood cholesterol levels. So there is no need to take these nutrient-rich foods out of your diet. Shrimp is loaded with protein, and is a good source of iron plus it contains just 80 calories per serving. Eggs are also packed with nutrition – the whites are an excellent source of protein and the yellow color you see in the yolk is from antioxidants – plant compounds that protect plants from disease and protect your body from the damaging effects of free radicals, compounds that are essential but can cause damage as well.

Coconut Oil, Butter and Other Solid Fats are Not the Best Options

Man-made trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils) are the worst kind of fat you can eat. However, they should, finally, be making their way out of our food supply over the next few years. High levels of *saturated fat, the kind that is solid at room temperature like butter, increases HDL (the “good” cholesterol but not a target of therapy – doctors don’t focus on HDL levels because increasing HDL does not lower heart disease risk) and LDL cholesterol in the blood. In controlled diet experiments where saturated fat is replaced with polyunsaturated fat rich vegetable oils, risk of heart disease is reduced. Replacing saturated fat with monounsaturated fat, the kind found in olive oil, also lowers LDL but not to the extent that polyunsaturated fat does.

Coconut oil is popular and calorie for calorie it might be better for weight management than other fats. However, coconut oil raises our total, good and bad cholesterol levels. And therefore, it is not the best option for heart health.

Excess Carbohydrate Intake can Increase LDL

Overconsumption of carbohydrate-rich foods can also increase VLDL cholesterol (very low density lipoprotein). Foods with added sugars, in particular, are potent stimulators of VLDL production when the energy (calories) aren’t needed right away for energy or increasing glycogen stores (stored carbohydrate in your liver and muscle).

Best Fats for Your Heart

Nuts, seeds, avocados, olives and liquid oils are your bets for heart health. Oils with more polyunsaturated fat have a greater impact on LDL cholesterol than those rich in monounsaturated fat. Make sure you are choosing the right oil for the right cooking application. Many oils can’t stand high heat and they break down, damaging the structure (and function) of the oil.

Fatty Acids in Oils

Conclusion

Many factors contribute to high blood cholesterol levels, including genetics, overweight/obesity, inactivity, smoking, diabetes and age, making cholesterol management a multifactorial issue. Saturated fat increases LDL cholesterol but, as I’ll say over and over, we are all different and, people vary in their response to dietary saturated fat due to intrinsic differences in fat metabolism as well as other factors including obesity, insulin resistance and high triglycerides.

Replace fats that raise cholesterol with liquid oils, nuts, seeds, avocados, and olives. Consider your overall diet as well. Eat a plant-based diet including vegetables (non-starchy veggies as well as beans, lentils and peas), fruits, nuts, seeds and whole grains (oats, barley etc.). Consume fatty fish ( salmon, mackerel, herring, halibut, sardines etc.) at least two times per week. Limit your intake of foods with added sugars and refined starches as well as your alcohol consumption. 

* There are differences in specific saturated fatty acids and their effects on blood cholesterol. Therefore, some foods high in saturated fat do not raise LDL cholesterol. Also, oils have a different array of vitamins (primarily vitamin E) and plant-based compounds that may be beneficial for heart health.

Fatty acids composition of oils taken from the USDA Nutrient Database.

Should You Go on a Detox from Sugar?

Should You Go on a Detox from Sugar?

Oh my gosh, the TODAY show just launched a new initiative called the 10-day sugar detox (#NoSugarTODAY). I’m so sick of detoxes! Though most people should reduce their intake of added sugars, let’s call a spade a spade: sugar is hardly “toxic”. Before giving a nutrient so much power, let’s get the facts right:

              –  No one single nutrient is responsible for poor health, weight gain, etc.

                –  Diet is a confluence of factors: food, lifestyle (exercise, activities of daily living,  sleep and more), etc.

                  –  Rather than focus on the single nutrient, think *really* hard about what you want to accomplish.

Why Should We Give Up Sugar?

It’s tough to tease out single ingredients like sugar and their potential health effects. However, we are eating too much added sugar – the kind that is mixed in during cooking or food processing. Men are averaging 335 calories from added sugars (20 teaspoons) whereas women are taking in an average of 239 calories (15 teaspoons) from added sugar each day. Kids are consuming a whooping 16% of their calories from added sugars.[1] The majority of added sugar in our diet comes from our food (as opposed to beverages). And while some of the sources are things you might expect: sodas, desserts, nutrition bars, etc., some of the added sugar culprits are seemingly healthy foods such as salad dressings and sauces. Added sugar enhances taste and provides calories but has no real nutrition value, in other words, no vitamins, minerals or plant based compounds that are important for good health. Naturally occurring sugars are found in foods packed with good nutrition including fruits, vegetables and dairy products. Though added sugars have nothing to offer you, giving up the sweet stuff for 10 days may be a short-term solution yet ineffective for the long term.

Here’s why the TODAY Show is missing the mark with this 10-day detox:

– 10 days isn’t long enough to change a habit. It’s more like taking a vacation.

– The cold turkey approach rarely works. You’re better off gradually reducing.

– Foods with naturally occurring sugars such as 100% fruit juice and dried fruits are wrongly maligned. In fact, the majority of research shows moderate amounts of 100% fruit juice are not linked to overweight or obesity in adults or children).

– You’re allowed to go right back to your old eating habits after 10 days. So what’s the point?

Why Limit Yourself to 10 Days? Set Yourself Up for a Lifetime of Success

–  Figure out why you are tempted to do a sugar detox and then plan to specifically address that issue.

–  Log your food intake for at least 3 days via MyFitnessPal. See how much sugar   you’re really eating. Can you tell which foods are sugar-added vs. naturally sweet?

–  Find small changes to reduce added sugars. For instance, you may need to cut down on sodas, or swap ice cream for a 100% fruit juice pop, or make your own vinaigrettes (really easy – especially if you take flavored vinegars and combine them with extra virgin olive oil; or try one of these simple, unique recipes)

–  Don’t deprive yourself of foods with naturally-occurring sugars. When I crave something sweet I reach for dried figs (or other fruit), plain yogurt, or sparkling water mixed with 100% fruit juice. All of these give me vitamins, minerals, and healthy plant-based compounds called polyphenols.

–  Reassess your food intake after 1 month and see if you can make any additional improvements).

–  Bottom line: progress is in the small steps, not giant leaps (or in this case, detoxes).

Many Americans should cut down on added sugars and make room for more nutrient-dense foods. But, don’t thrown the baby out with the bathwater and then go on an all-out sugar binge because you feel deprived. Forget the “detox,” figure out your “why” (why would you do a detox? What do you hope to gain?) and then carve out a reasonable plan for change that doesn’t focus on one single dietary variable. After all, there is no one food or ingredient that leads to obesity, chronic disease, feeling like your energy is zapped, or any other health issue.

[1] Ervin RB, Ogden CL. Consumption of added sugars among U.S. adults, 2005– 2010. NCHS data brief, no 122. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2013. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db122.pdf

[2] O’Connor TM, et al. Beverage intake among preschool children and its effect on weight status. Pediatrics. 2006. 118:e1010-e1018.

[3] Field AE, et al. Association between fruit and vegetable intake and change in body mass index among a large sample of children and adolescents in the United States. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2003. 27:821-826.

[4] O’Neil CE, et al. A review of the relationship between 100% fruit juice consumption and weight in children and adolescents. Am J Lifestyle Med. 2008. 2:315-354.

[5] Johnson L, et al. Is sugar-sweetened beverage consumption associated with increased fatness in children? Nutrition. 2007. 23:557-563.