Fats definitely shouldn’t be something you’re scared of. They’re vital for building cell membranes, producing hormones, for healthy skin, hair and nails, and they help your body absorb important vitamins such as vitamin A, D, E and K. That said, certain fats have been shown to increase your risk for certain diseases, and the dangers of having high levels of cholesterol are often plastered across the internet in articles; but what exactly is the science behind this, and what can do you about it?
What’s wrong with saturated fat?
Saturated fats are the ones that are solid at room temperature, like meats and cheese. They’re often blamed for increasing cholesterol and therefore people’s risk of heart disease, which is the world’s top cause of death (1). However, whilst there is an association between saturated fat and increased cholesterol, it is more to do with ratio of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol, instead of the total amount. ‘Good’ cholesterol refers to high density lipoprotein (HDL) and ‘bad’ cholesterol refers to low density lipoprotein (LDL). For this reason, it’s advised that saturated fats are consumed in moderation, and it’s generally recommended that you limit your daily intake to less than a third of your total fat consumption.
How can unsaturated fats help you reduce cholesterol?
Unsaturated fats are often liquid at room temperature and include vegetable oils, as well as nuts and fish. These are the ones to focus on and it’s recommended that they make up around two-thirds of your daily fat intake. Monounsaturated fats are great at reducing ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol whilst increasing ‘good’ HDL cholesterol, and can be found in olive oil, avocados and most nuts. Polyunsaturated fats also help to reduce ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol. On top of this, they contain omega-3 and omega-6, which are essential fatty acids that are crucial for your health, so make sure you’re consuming these fats, either from sources such as salmon, or plant-based alternatives like flaxseeds and walnuts.
Why avoid trans fats?
Trans fats can raise your ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and lower your ‘good’ HDL cholesterol, so for this reason, they should only be consumed in small quantities so as to reduce your risk of developing coronary heart disease. The UK government suggests that adults consume less than 5g of trans fat a day (2). These are found in margarine and baked goods such as biscuits and crisps.
What should you eat then?
A Mediterranean diet has been shown to lower cholesterol (3), so stick to filling up on plant foods and plenty of fibre. Fibre has also been shown to help lower cholesterol, as well as controlling blood sugar levels; high fibre-foods include oats, fruit and vegetables (4) (to learn more about fibre, check out this blog post here).
How can your lifestyle effect your levels of cholesterol?
Research has suggested that fasting can also be used alongside diet to help lower your cholesterol. Try getting into the pattern of fasting for 12 hours a day. Drink plenty of water as you’ll be getting less liquids from food, but avoid tea and coffee during this period as they can dehydrate you. If at any points you feel unwell, stop and listen to your body! (Please be aware that fasting may not be suitable for pregnant or breastfeeding women, as well as those with weakened immune systems or a history of eating disorders).
Aerobic exercise has also been shown to lower ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol. This can be a fun way to help improve your health, through exercises such as running, dancing, swimming or you could even try a HIIT class! There are plenty of accessible videos online if you’re looking for some inspiration or something to follow along to.
Having healthy levels of cholesterol is important for health. Whilst fats aren’t something to be scared of, it’s important to be mindful of the quantity you consume and the sources that you’re getting it from. Try to limit your consumption of trans fats, and in order to keep your ratio of HDL and LDL cholesterol in check, stick mainly to unsaturated fats which can be found in olive oil, nuts and seeds like flaxseeds. Following a Mediterranean diet and even a 12hr fasting regime, is a great way to help lower your cholesterol and ensure you’re getting plenty of fibre too, to help promote your overall health.
- The top 10 causes of death [Internet]. WHO.INT. 2018 [cited 26 Jun 2020]. Available from: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/the-top-10-causes-of-death
- Fat: the facts [Internet]. NHS.UK. 2020 [[cited 26 Jun 2020]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/different-fats-nutrition/
- Widmer RJ, Flammer AJ, Lerman LO, Lerman A. The Mediterranean diet, its components, and cardiovascular disease. Am J Med. 2015;128(3):229-238.
- Anderson JW, Baird P, Davis RH, et al. Health benefits of dietary fiber. Nutr Rev. 2009;67(4):188-205.