Meal planning: Fats and cholesterol

High LDL cholesterol is a risk factor for the onset of heart disease and stroke. The plaque deposits onto the artery wall narrowing the artery, putting more strain on your heart and eventually can lead to a full blockage of the artery. So you've got high cholesterol and you've been told to eat healthy? Here's a few types to get you headed in the right direction.

Everyday meal planning to reduce high cholesterol naturally

  1. Avoid: trans fats, packaged and processed foods, hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils, lunch meats and bakery foods. 
  2. Decrease: saturated AND animal fats
  3. Increase: omega 3 fats, essential fatty acids, phytosterols and fibre (oats, rye and beans)
  4. Eat: Unsaturated fats, foods that reduce cholesterol AND foods rich in antioxidants - nuts (a handful of unsalted almonds, walnuts, pecans, pistachios), seeds, fish (salmon and fatty fish), spirulina, leafy greens/spinach, beans, cacao, avocado, oats and cold pressed plant oils such as olive and sesame oil. 
  5. Cook: with coconut oil or butter
  6. Measure: your saturated fat intake. Recommended Dietary Intake is less than 24 grams/day
  7. Store: fats in a cool, dark place and in a glass bottle
  8. Buy: small bottles to avoid long term exposure to oxygen by opening and closing the bottle.
  9. Use: stable fats in your meal plans - macadamia nut oil, avocado oil, grass fed butter, coconut oil, cold pressed olive oil (in salads, don't cook with them)
  10. Improve: cholesterol with herbs and spices (cinnamon, garlic, fenugreek, ginger, rosemary, alfalfa, psyllium, oregano and sage) and foods that reduce cholesterol (oats, salmon and fatty fish, olive oil, spinach, avocado, tea, beans, cacao). 
  11. Exercise to burn 400 - 800 calories 4 - 5 days a week.

Ok so you already knew all that? Well keep reading as we go deeper into the science of fats and cholesterols that help us to create this list and make healthy food choices. 

So what is a fat... technically?

All foods contain 3 macronutrients that the body uses for the production of energy and cells throughout the body 

  1. Protein
  2. Fats
  3. Carbohydrates

These macronutrients are vital to life. Everything that lives contains some combination of these 3 macronutrients in varying amounts. The fats we eat are mostly triglycerides. Triglycerides are 3 fatty acids attached to a glycerol.  

So what do we need fats for?

  1. To provide and store energy
  2. Cell development and growth
  3. Aid proper functioning of the brain and nerves
  4. Maintain healthy skin and tissues
  5. Form steroid hormones
  6. Transport the fat soluble chemicals A, D, E and K. 

Nutritionally it is important to obtain fats from our food, however they get a bad rap. There are two main reasons for this:

  1. They are calorie dense - 1 gram of fat has 9 calories, compared to carbohydrates and proteins which only contain 4 calories to 1 gram.
  2. Some forms of fat are detrimental to your health, particularly in large amounts, such as trans fats and saturated fats. 

Fat is important to consider when tracking calories. When energy in is greater than energy out it is stored in our body as fat for a time when food is limited. These calories are found in all 3 macronutrients (protein, fat and carbohydrates) however fat has double the amount of calories per gram than protein and carbohydrates. The goal of eating healthy is to get maximum nutritional content to minimal calorie content, or nutrient density. For example, nuts are high in fat but have good nutritional content. So combining a handful of nuts with fibrous food contributes to good health. In contrast french fries have a high fat content, being saturated in cooking oil and have negligible health benefits, so eating them is only providing empty calories and depending on the cooking oil, providing bad fats. 

Meal planning and fatty acids

When you are meal planning you should take the time to source fats which promote your health and are nutritionally dense to use in your meals. Here are some terms to help you make the right choices.

The 4 types of fatty acids:

  • Monounsaturated
  • Polyunsaturated
  • Saturated
  • Trans

Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated are the best forms of fatty acids. Saturated fats increase total cholesterol and can contribute to increasing LDL cholesterol, so minimise your daily intake and have less 24g per day. Choose saturated fats for cooking because they are more stable and don't oxidise as easily. Polyunsaturated fats are rich in essential fatty acids and are great added to salads. Use monounsaturated fats for salad dressings and foods that will not be exposed to heat. Avoid trans fats altogether. 

  1. Monounsaturated fats - Fatty acids which have a single double bond in their fatty acid chain. Food sources include avocados, almonds, cashew, peanuts and cold pressed plant oils such as olive and sesame oil and peanut oils.  
  2. Polyunsaturated fats - Fatty acids containing more than one double bond in their fatty acid chain. Food sources include nuts, seeds, fish, algae and leafy greens. 
  3. Saturated fats - fatty acids with no double bonds. Food sources high in saturated fat are animal products such as cream, cheese, lard, butter and ghee. Some vegetable oils high in saturated fat include palm oil and coconut oil. Most processed foods are high in saturated fats such as pizza, dairy desserts, bacon and sausage. 
  4. Trans fats - Polyunsaturated fats not commonly found in nature but are commonly found in packaged foods such as chips, biscuits, muesli bars, peanut butter and deep fried and baked goods. They form as the result of processing oils and fats and are also known as hydrogenated oils or partially hydrogenated oils. The process makes polyunsaturated fats act as saturated fats, transforming liquid fats to more solid fats to make them easier to use in baking etc. The hydrogenation process also lengthens the shelf life.

Understanding cholesterol - What is it? What does it do?

Cholesterol is a type of sterol (steroid alcohol) naturally occurring in plants, animals and fungi. It is a waxy like soft substance found in all animals. Cholesterol is required for cell membrane structure and function, transport of fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, and a precursor to steroid hormones and bile acids. It is an essential structural component in animal cells and is required to build and maintain membranes and modulate membrane fluidity. 

Cholesterol - good or bad?

  • LDL cholesterol - low density lipoprotein cholesterol also called 'bad cholesterol'. High LDL cholesterol is a risk factor for high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and atherosclerosis. 
  • HDL cholesterol - high density lipoprotein cholesterol also called 'good cholesterol'. This is the cholesterol you want. It picks up LDL cholesterol and takes it to the liver to be used, eliminated or converted to hormones before it can do damage to your arteries. High HDL and low LDL are important in reducing your risk factors of heart disease. 
  • VLDL - very low density lipoprotein cholesterol aka 'bad cholesterol'. VLDL helps cholesterol build up on artery walls thereby also increasing risk factors of heart disease. 

How to increase HDL (good cholesterol)

  • Exercise - aim to burn 400 - 800 calories 4 - 5 days a week and once a week 1000+ calories. 
  • Eat oily fish and omega 3s and take udo oil as a supplement (found at most health food stores and online)
  • Avoid smoking
  • Consume alcohol in moderation

How to reduce LDL (bad cholesterol)

  • Increase fiber - rye, oats, beans
  • Decrease portion size of foods containing cholesterol - dairy (cheese, butter, milk) and animal fats.
  • Increase phytosterols (similar in structure to cholesterol so therefore compete with cholesterol for absorption across the intestines) flax seed, nuts, leafy greens, seeds, sage, oregano, paprika, thyme, grapefruit, mungbean, fenugreek seeds, onions, basil, dill seed, rosemary and chives. 

What about omega fatty acids?

Omega fatty acids have many complex roles in the body. They are important to prevent coronary heart disease, stroke and diabetes, promote healthy nerve activity, improve vitamin absorption, maintain a healthy immune system and promote cell development. Most commonly our diet is high in omega 6 and low in omega 3. Balance is key. We require a 2:1 ratio of omega 6 to omega 3, to avoid systemic inflammation. This inflammation contributes to heart disease, diabetes, obesity and arthritis.  It could also contribute to mood irregularities and some mental disorders.

 Find this recipe in meal ideas

Find this recipe in meal ideas

Omega 3

Omega 3 is a type of polyunsaturated fat, which may be of particular benefit to the heart and appears to decrease the risk of coronary artery disease and lower blood pressure. Omega 3 has many benefits to the body including improving heart health, normalising and regulating cholesterol and triglyceride levels, reducing inflammation, supporting and nourishing joints and improving brain health.

Food sources include flaxseed, salmon, chia seeds, nuts (particularly walnuts),  fatty fish, basil, oregano, spinach and soybeans. There are 3 important fatty acids under the omega 3 branch which benefit the body.

  1. Alpha-linolenic acid is an essential fatty acid because the body needs it for human growth and development and can't be made by the body. This means the body needs to get it from your diet. Alpha-linolenic acid is beneficial to the cardiovascular system and may reduce heart disease. Food sources include seeds (chia and flaxseed), nuts and plant oils.
  2. EPA decreases inflammation. Food sources include oily fish, fish oil and seaweed.
  3. DHA -and is an integral structural component of the human brain, skin and retina. Food sources include cold water oceanic fish oils. 

Omega 6

Omega 6 is also an essential fatty acid, in that it needs to be obtained from the diet and cannot be synthesised by the body. Mostly, our diets contain a lot of omega 6, in fact, too much. So choosing healthy options of omega 6 is key. Omega 6 plays integral roles in growth, hormone like messengers and nerve health. The 2 common forms of omega 6 fatty acids are:

  1. Linoleic acid: found in nuts, fatty seeds (flax, hemp, sesame) and derived from plant oils. 
  2. Arachidonic acid: found in dairy, meats and fats.

Whilst omega 6 is necessary to obtain from the diet, a high intake of omega 6 and a low intake of omega 3, contributes to inflammation in the body. 

Omega 9

Omega 9 is not an essential fatty acid. The body is capable of synthesising it, given it has the right nutrients and environment to do so. But it doesn't hurt to include in the diet. It has been shown to be protective against heart disease, increase HDL cholesterol, decrease LDL cholesterol and they help to reduce plaque build up on artery walls. Omega 9 is a monounsaturated fatty acid. Food sources include avocados, eggs, poultry, olive oil and nuts. Omega 9 - cold pressed olive oil, avocados, olives, almonds, cashew, macadamias, peanuts, pecans, pistachios and walnuts

Why and how to avoid oxidation of fat

Oxidation of fat is the destruction of the structural integrity of the fat. This releases free radicals which damage cells. LDL cholesterol is also highly prone to oxidation. The oxidised LDL cholesterols are more likely to deposit onto artery walls. 

  • Cooking - high heat exposure damages the oils releasing free radicals. The point at which the oil starts to burn is when the oil is damaged. Cooking with oil with a high burning point is safest. Saturated fats are the most stable and best to cook with, especially coconut oil and butter.Avoid cooking with unsaturated fats (safflower, sunflower, soybean, corn etc) as they increase exposure to free radicals because the double bonds make them less stable. 
  • Exposure to sunlight and oxygen - storage of oils also affects oxidative damage. The best storage of oils is in a glass container out of direct sunlight. Every time the bottle is opened it allows for more oxidative damage. All oils also undergo natural oxidation whereby after a period of time they go rancid. How quickly it oxidises depends on the saturation and therefore the stability of oil. Polyunsaturated oils are the least stable and succumb to oxidative stress quickest, then monounsaturated and then saturated. 

***Buy small bottles to keep oil as fresh as possible***

Importance of antioxidants

  • Antioxidants: on a daily basis we are exposed to free radical damage. Not only due to general biochemical oxidative behaviour in our body but also pollution and toxins from our outside environment. Antioxidants are key to scavenging these free radicals to prevent them doing damage to the body.
  • LDL cholesterol oxidises easily. Oxidised LDL cholesterol is more likely to deposit onto artery walls. 
  • Foods sources rich in antioxidants include berries, turmeric, grapes, nuts, green leafy vegetables, sweet potato and orange vegetables, tea, beans and fish.