While cholesterol often gets the bad press when it comes to heart disease, it is a diet high in fat--especially saturated fat--that is more likely to raise your blood levels of cholesterol. Saturated fat increases the blood level of "bad" LDL cholesterol that clogs arteries. In fact, it's possible to eat a cholesterol-free diet and still have high blood cholesterol levels because you consume too many saturated fats or you have an inherited abnormality.
Saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature. The exceptions are tropical oils such as palm oil. polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats are less harmful to your heart health than saturated fats.
Here is a quick guide to keep your fats straight:
- Saturated fats are found primarily in animal and dairy foods--sources that are also often rich in cholesterol--but also in many snack foods such as potato chips, crackers and cookies. Certain cooking oils (often used to prepare these snack foods) like palm and coconut oils are also high in saturated fats. These fats raise your blood level of "bad" LDL cholesterol.
- polyunsaturated fats are found in vegetable and fish oils. Rich sources of monounsaturated fats are olive, canola and peanut oils. Both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats lower cholesterol levels when they are substituted for saturated fats in your diet.
To reduce saturated fats in your diet, and get more heart-healthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, try these eating strategies:
A cup of whole milk has an additional 9 grams of fat (5 of them saturated) compared to skim. Regular yogurt has 5 more grams of fat than nonfat versions. So whenever possible, choose "light" versions of foods--especially dairy products.
Watch those flavorings
Although olive, canola and other other cooking oils are better than palm, coconut and vegetable shortening, all oils get all their calories from fat. So while they make better substitutes, don't go overboard when cooking. In fact, you're better off using no-stick pans or a product like pam, which contains no fat. And keep an eye out for condiments such as mayonnaise and salad dressings, which can contain 10 grams of fat or more per teaspoon. Again, low-fat versions are preferred.
Give frozen foods a cold shoulder
processed frozen foods are often high in saturated fats in order to add flavor and texture to them. So read frozen food labels to make sure you're not adding "hidden fats" to your diet.
Watch out for hydrogenation
Look for the words "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" on food labels for baked goods, candies and other snack foods. If you see them, pass on the item or eat them only occasionally. That's because hydrogenation adds hydrogen to heart-healthier unsaturated fats to give them more the texture of animal fats. Unfortunately, many people assume that these vegetable oils are healthier, but in fact, hydrogenated vegetable oils have become partially saturated fats and can raise cholesterol almost as much as animal fats.
Avoid the extras
When can heart-healthy foods cause havoc When they're in cream or creamy sauces, cheese sauces, butter, dips or are breaded and fried. Vegetables in sauces can be just as fattening as other junk foods, so have your heart-healthy fare without the extras.