Fat and cholesterol have a complicated history in the health and fitness world. Once, fat-free products were celebrated as being healthy and "good for you;" recently, full-fat products and even fat-added products are advertised as beneficial. But what’s true and what’s myth?
The truth is, fat and cholesterol can be part of a healthy diet — as long as you eat the right quantities, choose the healthier types, and avoid the ones with no health benefits and links to disease.
There are many confusing or simply false ideas about fat and cholesterol. Here are some of them, along with medical doctor-recommended advice about what you need to know to make healthy choices.
1. Myth: Fat-free Foods Are Best
Truth: Fat-free doesn't mean healthy, and many foods labeled fat-free contain other ingredients that could have adverse health effects.
Fat-free foods are often marketed as healthier options. But studies show that fat-free foods aretypically higher in added sugar than regular foods.
Added sugars in food can disrupt your hormones like leptin (hunger hormone) and insulin, which could make you eat more and gain excess weight.
Eating high amounts of added sugar has also been linked with chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes.
Fats can be healthy if they’re from the right sources and in the optimal amounts.
What you can do:
Eat full-fat options in small quantities. If it's saturated fat such as butter, cheese, lard, and other animal (not fish) fat, make it 10% of your daily calories. If it’s unsaturated fat, which has health benefits, you can make it up to 25% of your daily calories. Keep your daily calories from fat below 30%.
Check the ingredients. If the product contains high amounts of added sugar, consider avoiding it or eating very small quantities. Note that sugar can go by many names, including sucrose, fructose, maltose, galactose, lactose, dextrin, sucanat, treacle, molasses, caramel, different types of syrups, and more.
Choose healthier fat. If you want a full-fat experience, choose healthy fat such as avocado and extra virgin olive oil.
2. Myth: High-fat Foods Are Unhealthy
Truth: All fats are not the same. Although they are rich in calories, and should be consumed in small quantities (by most adults), some fats are healthy and even essential for good health.
Some high-fat foods contain healthful nutrients and promote wellbeing. As long as fat doesn't take up more than 30% of your daily calories and the fats you choose benefit your health, fats can be quite healthy indeed.
For example, eggs are a source of saturated fat and cholesterol. Two large eggs contain 11 grams of saturated fat. Unfortunately, in the past this made experts discourage people from eating eggs. But recent research shows that eggs are not related to heart disease, as previously thought (and taught) for decades.
Researchers have also found that men who ate eggs in the morning had more stable insulin levels and better hunger control.
Another high fat but healthy food is avocado. They’re about 15% unsaturated fat, a type of fat that has many health benefits and isn't linked with disease. Along with that healthy fat, avocados also contain:
Vitamins B, C, E, and K
Carotenoids, which are red, yellow, and orange pigments in plants with antioxidant and other healthful properties.
In a large population-based study, researchers found that adults who ate avocados habitually were less likely to be overweight or obese compared to those who didn't.
Walnuts are about 65% fat, but the fat in walnuts is the healthy type. Researchers found that people who ate walnuts while keeping their total calories low had better cholesterol levels and blood pressure control.
Lowering blood pressure
Reducing insulin resistance
Reducing chronic inflammation.
What you can do:
Eat fats from plant sources such as avocados, walnuts, and olives. Some animal sources like eggs and fish also provide beneficial nutrients.
Eat limited amounts of high-fat foods from animal sources such as cheese, lard, and butter (about 5% of daily calories or less).
3. Myth: Dietary Cholesterol Is Unhealthy & the Main Cause of High Cholesterol in Blood
Truth: Cholesterol in your diet has a small effect on blood cholesterol for most people. For many, the main sources of high cholesterol come from genetics, a high-carb diet, a diet high in saturated fats, and other lifestyle choices like not exercising, smoking, and drinking alcohol.
There are healthy foods that contain cholesterol, such as shrimp. Eat small amounts of foods that are high in cholesterol and saturated fats like ribs, beef roast, and butter.
Genetics plays a huge role in the amount of cholesterol in your blood. Some people are more likely to have high cholesterol in blood following high cholesterol meals. Age, genes, and lifestyle also play a role.
Dietary cholesterol has a modest effect on blood cholesterol for most people.
But in about 40% of people, a high-cholesterol diet raises their blood cholesterol significantly. The good news is that both the "good" and "bad" cholesterol are equally raised; they balance each other out and there's no increase in heart disease risk.
All cholesterol-containing foods are not created equal. Some foods rich in cholesterol are also rich in vitamins, minerals and healthful compounds like antioxidants, probiotics, and healthful fats like:
Although eggs contain cholesterol, eggs have also been found to contain all essential vitamins except vitamin C. They contain choline, which is a vital protein for bone functions. Eggs are rich sources of calcium, potassium, phosphorus, and all trace elements too.
Research has shown that yogurt contains fat, but is also rich in protein, vitamin B-3 and B-12, and minerals like potassium, calcium, phosphorus, and zinc. And it contains probiotics, which support healthy gut bacteria.
But there are other sources of cholesterol which aren't as healthy. These sources include:
Fried foods, especially deep fried
Baked foods, especially when the quality of fat is unknown
Foods high in added sugar such as cakes, pies, and other pastries
Processed meat such as bacon, sausage, ham, deli meats, and pepperoni.
The processing these foods undergo combined with high levels of saturated fat and added ingredients like salt and sugar make them less healthy.
What you can do:
Eat foods like eggs, shellfish, and yogurt, which contain other healthful compounds. But be mindful of calories and saturated fat, which are also present.
Avoid foods rich in cholesterol that don’t have any additional benefits.
4. Myth: There’s Nothing You Can Do About Your Cholesterol Level
Truth: You can help lower your cholesterol with changes in diet and lifestyle, and by taking medication.
Diet, exercise, and habits like smoking affect your blood cholesterol level. While your blood cholesterol can be controlled with prescribed medication, you can improve it by:
Reducing saturated fat and excess carbohydrates. This includes paying close attention to your diet, reducing your saturated fat intake, and limiting carbohydrates to fuel your daily activity level.
Increasing your physical activity if necessary. This will help your body burn calories more efficiently. And studies show that the more you exercise, the more good cholesterol you have.
Quitting smoking. Smoking can:
Increase your bad cholesterol
Reduce your good cholesterol
Make your blood more likely to clot and cause obstructions
Damage your blood vessels
Release toxins into your blood that damage your cells in many other ways.
But there’s good news! When you stop smoking, your good cholesterol levels go up.
5. Myth: All Fats Are Healthy & You Can Eat as Much as You Like
And you can even add extra oil to your coffee for energy!
Truth: All fats are not equal. Some are linked to health risks and some have health benefits.
All fats in your diet should be less than 30% of your total daily calories. You don't need extra fat for energy. Experts recommend a varied diet rich in protein, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and fats with health benefits if you don't have any issues that might require dietary restrictions.
Some diets, like keto, encourage people to eat a high-fat diet. While this may not have immediate dangers in younger, fitter people, it may be dangerous in older people who are sedentary or have other heart disease risks such as smoking or obesity.
We’ve already seen that all fat is not equal. The more natural the source of the fat, the better. The more processed the fat, the less healthy it’s likely to be for you.
Saturated fats have been associated with health conditions like heart disease. That said, there isn’t unanimous agreement among the scientific community about whether saturated fat consumption is significantly associated with cardiovascular disease and mortality. To be on the safe side, try to limit your consumption of saturated fats and choose polyunsaturated fats more often.
Saturated fats include oils that may be marketed as healthy such as:
Coconut and coconut oil
Palm fruit and palm oil
Palm kernel and palm kernel
But these oils may still have a place in your diet as long as you don't use them in excess. They come from natural sources, contain saturated and unsaturated fats as well as healthy compounds like vitamins and minerals.
Even food from animals such as eggs, cheese, butter, and full-fat yogurt that contain saturated fat can be eaten regularly as long as you keep them to 10% or less of your total daily calories.
But there's one type of fat you should avoid totally where possible. It has no benefits and has been banned in many countries: industrially produced partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, also known as trans fat.
Natural trans fat is found in food made from goats, sheep, cows, and other ruminants. These sources aren’t considered as harmful as industrial trans fat because the natural sources also contain other healthy compounds.
Industrial trans fats have no health benefits and are linked with heart disease. Some common sources of trans fat include:
Oils reused for frying
Commercial biscuits and pastries.
That said, some manufacturers of these products don't use trans fat.
What you can do:
Choose unsaturated fats to make up to about 30% of your total daily calories.
Eat saturated fat in smaller quantities, 10% of your total daily calories or less.
Read ingredient lists and avoid trans fat where possible.
6. Myth: Eating Fat Causes Weight Gain
Truth: Eating more calories that you use repeatedly can cause you to gain weight and accumulate excess body fat. So can genetics, certain health conditions and medications, stress, environmental factors, and poor sleep. Weight gain can also be affected by hormones, weight, age, and physical activity.
So, you don't gain weight just by eating fat. Even if you don't eat much fat, you can gain weight by eating carbohydrates and proteins if you eat more than you can use.
Your body stores excess calories as fat, no matter where they come from.
But if you eat just what you need, even if fat is part of that, you shouldn't gain weight (unless your weight issues can be attributed to any of the other already mentioned factors).
You can get an estimate of your daily calorie requirements by using the NIH’s body weight planner tool. But if you aren’t sure, speak with your healthcare provider or consider reaching out to a Kickoff certified personal trainer for advice.
Nutrition is a rapidly evolving field with new knowledge being discovered regularly. Some things that were thought to be true have been proven otherwise. As personalized medicine becomes more available, it may soon be possible to know the best meals for each person and have science to back it. In the meantime, making choices based on the knowledge we have is a good idea for maximum health and longevity.