Good fats and bad fats

This is possibly the most confusing topic in the field of nutrition, and the problem is made worse because in many cases, nutritionists, doctors and scientists really don’t’ know all the answers.

Fats have been classified into 2 groups:

1. The degree of saturation – monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated and saturated fats. In recent years trans fat have also been added to this group
2. And whether they are omega 3 or omega 6 fats.

Degree of saturation. Fats have a “backbone” of carbon atoms all joined together by bonds, like thread through a string of beads. If there is a single bond, then each carbon atom has 2 hydrogen atoms attached to it.

• If all carbons have just a single bond, then the fat is called saturated – it is saturated with hydrogen. This is the composition of most animal fats and some tropical oils, such as coconut oil.
• If there is one double bond, then it is mono-unsaturated. For example olive oil, almond, peanut, cashew and avocado oils.
• If there are a number of double bonds, then it is poly-unsaturated. Most vegetable oils are poly-unsaturated, they are liquid at room temperatures and are prone to oxidation and rancidity.
• A new group of fats, artificially produced from poly-unsaturated fats, are the Trans fats. These are a completely different shape, can easily pack together and very likely cause heart disease and perhaps other diseases of today. Trans fats are found in many margarines and spreads, cake mixes, baked goods, fried fast food, potato chips, whipped toppings … read the label and void them.

Suffice to say, our grandparents and forefathers all ate fully saturated animal fats, and had much less coronary heart disease and cancer than we currently have.

• We have no doubt that monounsaturated fats such as olive oil and fish oil fats are good for us, unless they are heated repeatedly, when they can turn into trans fats.
• Poly-unsaturated fats are probably good, but not too much
• Saturated fats: caution and don’t overdo them
• Trans-fats: these are pure evil, and should be avoided if at all possible. But in today’s world, this is almost an impossibility.

Omega 3 vs omega 6 fats – our liver can make most of the fats oru body requires with two exceptions – Linoleic Acid (omega 6) – BAD and alpha linolenic (omega 3) – GOOD. These have very similar names, but their effects within the body are totally different. However the important point is that it is a matter of balance. Let’s look at each in turn:

Linoleic acid is omega 6 which turns into arachidonic acid AA which promotes inflammation, and is very useful for fighting infections. It helps white blood cells to find an attack bacteria and viruses, boosts the immune system, makes the blood more likely to clot, closes up the arteries and also can narrow the bronchi going to the lungs.

So, although omega 6 fats have a good side, because we have them in excess in our diet and our bodies, we regard them as bad.

While these are all handy in the presence of an infection, at other times these actions can hurt the body, causing heart attacks, asthma, inflammatory bowel disease and arthritis.

Alpha linolenic acid is omega 3 and is found in cold water fatty fish and flax and some other seed oils. This turns into Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) which does the opposite to AA. It reduces inflammation, dilates the arteries and the bronchi and reduces the clotting tendency of the blood. It also blocks some of the unnecessary damaging effects of AA on the body.

So omega 3 oils are powerful “treatments” for any disease caused or aggravated by inflammation such as arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and asthma. People are beginning to realize that the onset of a heart attack in many cases is initiated by inflammation, so omega 3 oils are very important in people with coronary artery disease.

So we need a little omega 6 oil (AA) to fight infections and stay protected, and some omega 3 (EPA) to protect the body, and the best amount is the ratio of 4 to 1 (AA: EPA). But in our Western diet, the ratio is more like 40-80 to 1. Is it surprising that we have so much inflammatory (immune) diseases and heart disease?

The answer – cut down on the red meat, egg yolks and animal fats, and also increase the amount of omega 3 oils (flax seed and fish oils), to get the ratio closer to the healthy 4 to 1. Our bodies will thank us for that.

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Dietary Cholesterol

Dietary cholesterol is a fatlike substance found only in animal foods such as organ meats, egg yolks, fish and shellfish, beef and poultry, and dairy products. Plant foods do not naturally contain cholesterol.

You might be surprised to learn that although most foods that are high in cholesterol are also high in total fat and saturated fat, some low-fat foods such as shrimp and squid are also high in cholesterol; other shellfish contain lower amounts of cholesterol. Organ meats contain extremely high levels of cholesterol – 3 ounces of beef brain, for example, contains a whopping 1,696 mg cholesterol!

Although it might have less of an impact than high intakes of saturated and trans fats, too much dietary cholesterol can increase serum or blood cholesterol levels. When too much cholesterol builds up in blood vessel walls, it’s hard for blood to travel through the body and can cause a heart attack or stroke. When blood vessels that lead to the heat or brain become blocked, a heart attack or stroke can occur.

Some people in particular experience wide swings in their blood cholesterol levels in response to consuming varying amounts of dietary cholesterol. Although there’s not test to identify who is sensitive to dietary cholesterol, it’s prudent for all of us to limit or reduce our intake of dietary cholesterol.

Serum or blood cholesterol is cholesterol that circulates in the blood stream. Although most is made by the liver, some is obtained from the diet. Two main types of serum cholesterol include LDL (low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, also known as “bad” cholesterol) and HDL (high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, also known as “good” cholesterol).

Heart attack, also known as myocardial infarction (MI), occurs when blood flow to the heart is blocked.

Stroke, also known as a cerebrovascular accident (CVA), occurs when blood flow to the brain is blocked; this causes brain cells to die because they don’t’ get enough oxygen.

Daily Fat and Cholesterol Recommendations

The Institute of Medicine’s dietary reference intakes (DRIs) recommend acceptable macronutrient distribution ranges (AMDRs) for fat for children and adults. These ranges of daily fat intake (expressed as a percentage of total calorie intake) that provide enough fat to meet individual needs while reducing the risk of chronic disease:

• Children from 1 to 3 years old – 30-40 percent of total calorie intake from fat
• Children from 4 to 18 years old – 25-35 percent of total calorie intake from fat
• Adults from 19 to 70 years and above – 20-35 percent of total calorie intake from fat

The DRIs also recommend specific amounts of total fat (in grams) infants should consume each day; these estimated needs are based on adequate intakes (AIs), average intakes of dietary fat by most healthy infants:

• Infants 0 to 6 months – 31 grams of fat
• Infants 7 to 12 months – 30 grams of fat

Monounsaturated Fat

Although there are no specific DRIs for monounsaturated fats, the National Cholesterol Education Program Expert Panel on the Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Cholesterol in Adults (Adult Treatment Panel III) recommend up to 20 percent of total daily calorie intake to come from monounsaturated fats.

Polyunsaturated Fat

The Institute of Medicine’s DRI recommends a range of intake (expressed as a percentage of total calorie intake) for linoleic acid (an omega-6 PUFA) and alpha linolenic acid (an omega-3 PUFA) for children and adults as follows:

• Linoleic acid (LA) – 5-10 percent of total calories
• Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) – 0.6-1.2 percent of total calories

Although there are no specific recommendations for EPA and DHA (the omega-3 fats found in fish), the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends everyone eat at least two fish meals (about 8 ounces cooked) each week, which provides about 500 mg/day EPA and DHA.

Saturated Fat

Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the AHA recommends that Americans should consume less than 10 percent of total calories from saturated fat. The AHA also recommends those with elevated bad LDL cholesterol (> 130 mg/dL) to aim for less than 7 percent of total calories from saturated fat.

Trans Fat

Although the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that people limit their intake of trans fats, and the Institute of Medicine’s DRIs recommend that trans fat intake should be as low as possible, the AHA has set a firm guideline for daily intake of trans fats. Based on their recent 2006 Dietary Guidelines, the AHA recommends that less than 1 percent of total calories should come from trans fats. That equals 1-3 grams of trans fat a day. Here are individual recommendations based on yoru daily calorie intake:

• If you consume 1,000-1,200 calories a day, consume no more than 1 gram per day.
• If you consume 1,400 calories a day, consume no more than 1.5 grams per day.
• If you consume 1,600-2,000 calories a day, consume no more than 2 grams per day.
• If you consume 2,200-2,400 calories a day, consume no more than 2.5 grams per day.
• If you consume 2,600 calories a day, consume no more than 3 grams per day.

Dietary Cholesterol

Dietary cholesterol is not something we need to consume; our bodies produce about 1,000 mg each day to meet our daily needs. Despite this, it would be very difficult for all but those who follow a vegan diet to eliminate dietary cholesterol from their diets.

The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a cholesterol intake of less than 300 mg per day. Less than 200 mg (or even less) is recommended for those with elevated LDL cholesterol level (> 130 mg/dL) or those diagnosed with heart disease.

A vegan diet is one that excludes all animal-derived foods (including meats, eggs, diary products, and foods made with animal fats).

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Polyunsaturated Fats

Polyunsaturated fats are essential fats the body can’t make and needs to obtain from the diet. They are usually in liquid form at room temperature or when refrigerated.

The two main categories of polyunsaturated fats found in foods are omega-6 fats and omega-3 fats.

Omega-6 fats provide readily available energy to the body as well as essential fats the body needs but cannot create. Three main types of omega-6 fats are found in foods: linoleic acid (LA), arachidonic acid (AA), and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).

Linoleic acid is the key source of polyunsaturated fats in the diet and is found in the food supply in sunflower, safflower, corn, cottonseed, and soybean oils. Arachidonic acid is found in small amounts in meats, poultry, and egg yolk, and conjugated linoleic acid is found in butterfat and meat.

Omega-3 fats also provide our bodies with energy and essential fats. They’re also linked with heart health and other benefits.

Three different types of omega-3 fats are found in foods: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosapaentanoic acid (DHA) are long-chain omega-3 fats found in fish, and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is a short-chain fatty acid found in plant foods. Here are some common food sources of each:

• EPA and DHA: Cold-water fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, trout, mackerel, herring, and oysters
• ALA: Soybean oil, canola oil, flaxseed oil, flaxseeds, walnuts, and tofu

In the body, very small amounts of ALA can be converted to EPA and DHA. Several foods and beverages, including ready-to-eat cereals and dairy foods, are also fortified with EPA, DHA, and/or ALA, although the amounts contained in such products are often small.

Foods rich in polyunsaturated fats provide energy to the diet. Many foods rich in polyunsaturated fats also provide other key nutrients. For example, vegetable oils are good sources of vitamin E, and fish and shellfish are rich in high-quality protein and the following vitamins and minerals:

Vitamin D – Salmon, mackerel, sardines, and tuna (canned)
• Potassium – Halibut, haddock, salmon (sockeye), and clams
• Iron – Clams, oysters, and sardines
• Magnesium – Halibut and Pollock
• Calcium – Sardines, pink salmon, ocean perch (Atlantic), blue crab, clam, and rainbow trout

Several studies show that replacing saturate fats with foods rich in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats without increasing total calories can lower bad LDL cholesterol levels and help prevent heart disease and stroke.

Omega-3 fats have been found to confer some important health benefits. EPA and DHA, the omega-3 fats found in fish, support important functions in the brain, blood vessels, and the immune system. Studies suggest that EPA and DHA might reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and prostate cancer. There’s evidence that consuming about 1 gram of EPA or DHA from supplements or fish can decrease the risk of death from cardiac events in people who have heart disease.

EPA and DHA can also protect your eyes from macular degeneration, support visual and neurological development in infants (the omega-6 fat arachidonic acid is also believed to play a role in this), and protect against preterm birth.

Some countries recommend lowering intakes of linoleic acid (an omega 6 fat) because they believe that high intakes can negate the benefits of EPA and DHA and increase the risk of inflammatory, immune, or other disease and conditions. Americans currently consume more than 10 times as much omega-6 fats as omega-3 fats. Although no expert recommendation to reduce linoleic acid has been made in the United States, it’s prudent to follow the healthy eating guidelines as outlined by MyPyramid, and to increase omega-3 fats by consuming more fish to boost nutrient intake and improve the overall quality of the diet. As with all fat (no matter what types of fatty acids they contain), too much can contribute to excess calorie intake and increase the risk for obesity or being overweight and related diseases and conditions.

Macular degeneration is the progressive deterioration of the macula (the back part of the retina) that can cause blindness.

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