It is a week since people around the world ushered in a new year and, as is common with a new year, a number of things crop up, particularly the promise of a new start and…predictably those habitual “New Year’s resolutions”.
One of the most common resolutions people try to achieve is leading a healthier lifestyle, be it going to the gym consistently or watching what one eats.
Regardless of which fitness/health goal you want to achieve, gym instructors and nutritionists will always tell you one thing: you are what you eat.
An important component of what one consumes includes fats, which are essential to the body’s development and well-being but can also be harmful. Fats have long been misconstrued and misinterpreted to the extent that the mention of the word itself implies automatic weight gain and/or an unhealthy food.
According to nutritionist Lucy Chege, too little nutrition information about dietary fats can mislead consumers and while also too much detail can overwhelm them, especially with messages about fats constantly changing.
Chege pointed out that there are some “good” fats (unsaturated fats) and “bad” fats (saturated fats) from the body’s point of view.
“Some fats support health whereas others damage it, and foods typically provide a mixture of fats in varying proportions. The saturated and trans-fats, indeed, seem mostly bad for the health of the heart. Aside from providing energy, which unsaturated fats can do equally well, saturated and trans- fats bring no indispensable benefits to the body,” Chege said.
Saturated fats and trans-fats are fats that raise blood cholesterol leaving someone susceptible to a range of cardiovascular diseases.
Sources of saturated fats include butter, coconut oil and palm oil, cakes, biscuits, fatty cuts of meat, sausages, bacon, cheese, ice cream and milkshakes, to mention a few.
“Over a third of the fat in most meats is saturated. Similarly, half of the fats from cheese, butter, cream, coconut, palm used heavily by food manufacturers and are commonly found in many commercially prepared foods contain saturated fats.”
Diets extremely low in saturated fat may include fatty fish, nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils, which are all valuable sources of many essential fatty acids, phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals. Importantly, the fats from these sources protect against heart disease.
“Fatty fish from less contaminated water bodies are a good source of Omega-3 fatty acids and help to protect against heart disease by reducing blood triglycerides, preventing blood clots, protecting against irregular heartbeats, lowering blood pressure, defending against inflammation and serving as precursors to eicosanoids.”
Cooking oils such as olive oil, canola, and oils from avocado, nuts and seeds are rich in mono-unsaturated fatty acids which help to protect against heart disease.
“Nuts such as walnuts, peanuts, macadamia may protect against heart disease because they provide monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in abundance, have few saturated fats, good source of fiber and vegetable protein, and other valuable nutrients, including the antioxidant vitamin E and many phytochemicals that act as antioxidants,” Chege noted.
It is important to remember that cholesterol travels through the blood on proteins called “lipoproteins”. There are two types of lipoproteins which carry cholesterol throughout the body: LDL (low-density lipoprotein), sometimes called “bad” cholesterol, and HDL (high-density lipoprotein), or “good” cholesterol.
High levels of LDL cholesterol raise one’s risk for heart disease and stroke while HDL absorbs cholesterol and carries it back to the liver which then then flushes it from the body.
When one’s body has too much LDL cholesterol, it can build up on the walls of their blood vessels causing the insides of the vessels to narrow and block blood flow to and from their heart and other organs.
Chege said some of the ways of achieving a heart-friendly diet are limiting intake of fatty meats, whole-milk products, tropical oils and hydrogenated foods.
“To reduce the susceptibility of cardiovascular diseases, reduce fats from convenience foods and fast foods; choose small portions of meats, fish, and poultry; and include fresh foods from all the food groups each day. Take care to select portion sizes that will best meet your energy needs. Also, exercise daily.”
Lucy Chege is a registered and licensed nutritionist based in Kenya, proficient in medical nutrition therapy. She is also the founder of Nutrition Therapy by Lucy.