The Skinny on Fats
Cholesterol can be both good and bad, so it's important to learn what cholesterol is, how it affects your health and how to manage your blood cholesterol levels. Cholesterol is a soft, waxy substance found in the blood. While your body needs it to form cell membranes and some hormones, a high level of cholesterol in the blood is a major risk factor for coronary heart disease, which leads to heart attack.
Typically, your body already produces all the cholesterol it needs (mainly in the liver). Levels then start to increase with the consumption of foods such as eggs, meats and dairy products. There are five types of cholesterol present in your body, the most important are HDLs and LDLs. LDL stands for low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, and this is the 'bad fat'; known to be the factor that correlates with fatty build-ups on artery walls and heart disease. HDL stands for high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, and it is the 'good fat', that to actually help the body in clearing excess cholesterol from the arteries.
In the UK, the average total cholesterol level is 5.7mmol/l.
The levels of total cholesterol fall into the following categories:
- Ideal level: cholesterol level in the blood less than 5mmol/l.
- Mildly high cholesterol level: between 5 to 6.4mmol/l.
- Moderately high cholesterol level: between 6.5 to 7.8mmol/l.
- Very high cholesterol level: above 7.8mmol/l.
Saturated FatsSaturated fats are those that are solid at room temperature. They generally come from an animal source, and include butter, lard and suet. Cream contains saturated fat, but because it also contains milk it remains liquid (on the label you can see how much fat it contains).
Monounsaturated FatsMonounsaturated fats are the preferred choice because they tend to lower the blood cholesterol level. The most commonly available monounsaturated oils are avocado oil, canola oil and olive oil, which are high in HDLs. Tests carried out on people from the Mediterranean countries consistently indicate that the use of monounsaturated oils actually reduces the amount of cholesterol in the blood. It is also believed that the increased HDLs are able to clean excess cholesterol from the blood vessels.
Polyunsaturated FatsPolyunsaturated fats are found in most nut, seed and vegetable oils. Traditionally they have been combined with dairy foods to make margarine and cooking oils. It was originally thought this would be a healthier alternative to butter and other saturated fats, but recent findings contradict this. The very process used to make margarine (beating the oil) actually saturates it.
Recent studies have shown found that trans fats - common in margarine, packaged baked goods and restaurant fried foods - reduced blood vessel function by a third and lowered good cholesterol by a fifth compared to saturated fats. This suggests that trans fats increase the risk of cardiovascular disease more than the intake of saturated fats.Trans fats are created when hydrogen atoms are forced into liquid oils, such as corn or soybean oil, to make them solid at room temperature. Look out for the terms "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" oils on nutrition labels, which refer to this process. Trans fats raise LDL and lower HDL.
Some concern has been raised about olestra; a fat-derived fat substitute used in savoury snack foods. Olestra reduces the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients, such as carotenoids, and the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Vitamins A and E are anti-oxidants, which research has linked to a decrease in coronary heart disease.
Food LabelsLean - To be classified as being a 'lean cut', a 100-gram portion of poultry, meat of fish must have no more than 10 grams of fat; no more than 4.5 grams of saturated fat and no more than 95 milligrams of cholesterol.
Extra Lean - To be classified as an 'extra lean' cut, a portion of poultry, meat or fish must have no more than five grams of fat, two grams of saturated fat, and no more than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per 100 grams.
Healthy - A food carrying this label must be low in fat and saturated fat and only have lows amounts of cholesterol and sodium. It must also contain at least 10% of one of the following; vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, dietary fibre, iron, or protein.
Low Fat - A 'low fat' label means a product has 3 grams of fat per serving of 2 tablespoons.
Light - 'Light' indicates that the product has 50% less fat than the regular product.
Reduced - Products with this label have been altered to have 25 percent less fat than the amount that is contained in their regular counterparts. Not to be confused with 'low.' Reduced fat foods may still contain more fat than those that are labelled 'low' fat.
No Fat/Fat Free - Contains absolutely no fat.