Don’t Go Breaking Your Heart

American Heart Month is coming to an end. While you indulge on the chocolate hearts from your sweetie, take a moment to stop and think about you are treating your heart. We have all been told for years that low fat and low cholesterol diets are the way to improve our heart health. Because of this belief fat is always the first nutrient on the chopping block, but Dietary Fats have several important roles in your health! Your brain is made up of approximately 60% fat, and fats play an active role in every cell in our body. They’re an important part of our hormones that regulate smooth muscle contraction, immune function, and blood clotting. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are all fat-soluble vitamins, meaning they require fat to be absorbed, and utilized in our bodies.

However, there are fats we need to watch out for in our diet. Saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature and prompts the liver to make more LDL cholesterol. Now wait a minute. Our liver is making cholesterol? Yes, any person or animal that has a liver has cholesterol and the liver makes all the cholesterol that is needed in the body. Contrary to popular belief cholesterol plays an integral function in the human body. It is a structural component of every cell membrane in our bodies and helps make hormones (estrogen and testosterone) and Vitamin D. We now know through research and advancements in technology that with an increased intake of dietary cholesterol your endogenous (made by your liver) cholesterol production is decreased. Your body compensates for the amount you’re eating by decreasing production, or increasing if your dietary cholesterol is low.

I digress. LDL cholesterol is known as the bad cholesterol because it transports cholesterol to the body tissue and can cause a build up of plaque in the blood vessels narrowing the vessels and increasing risk for heart disease. HDL cholesterol known as the good cholesterol acts in reverse. It transports cholesterol back to our liver to produce hormones or to be excreted, preventing plaque buildup.

So, if dietary cholesterol doesn’t impact our cholesterol levels what does? The types of fats we eat. Saturated fats are things like butter, cheese, meat and tropical vegetable oils such as coconut and palm oil. Remember saturated fat consumption prompts the liver to make more LDL cholesterol. Unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. Consumption of these fats will trigger less LDL production and more HDL production. Monounsaturated fatty acids such as canola, olive, peanut, safflower, sunflower, and avocados, help lower LDL cholesterol. Polyunsaturated fatty acids include corn, cottonseed, flaxseed, soybean, and fatty fish and may lower LDL cholesterol, improve insulin sensitivity, and assist with visual and cognitive development in infants. Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats and cannot be made by the body, requiring them to be consumed in the diet. Trans Fats are surprisingly an unsaturated fat that is semi-solid at room temperature. Most trans-fats are created by processing, giving them a different chemical structure causing them to be semisolid or spreadable. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils are a prime example of trans-fat. Trans-fats will increase LDL and lower HDL cholesterol. Reminder we want HDL cholesterol to be increased, and LDL to be decreased, making trans fats a double whammy.

Eggs are a food that we are often told to avoid due to its dietary cholesterol level. Shrimp and eggs are both high in cholesterol but are not high in saturated fats. Making them foods that can be included in a heart healthy diet. The dietary guidelines recommend limiting your consumption of saturated fats to less than 10% of your calories per day to help lower your risk of heart disease. Conversely increasing physical activity to 150 minutes per week increases HDL and reduces your risk for heart disease by lowering LDL cholesterol.

Monica Nagele is the County Extension Director and educator of health and human science for the Montgomery County Purdue Extension.