Cholesterol, Saturated Fats and Trans Fats
Everyone has heard the advice, “decrease your intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.” This mantra has been around for years and is something we tend to hear from public health officials, dietitians, and others in the healthcare field. Most are also familiar with the phrase, “eat lean meats and low fat dairy products.” Decreasing our intake of saturated fat and cholesterol is definitely a step in the right direction. But how many people truly know where to find saturated fat and cholesterol? How do we avoid these products?
Eating You Alive – Dr Michael Greger “Money Talks”
According to the Institute of Medicine (2002), there is no safe level of consumption of cholesterol, saturated fat, or trans fat as any incremental increased consumption of these foods increases the risk of developing coronary heart disease (pp. 422-542). The 2015-2020 United States Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2015) was developed by the United States Department of Health and Human Services and United States Department of Agriculture. It states, “In general, foods that are higher in dietary cholesterol, such as fatty meats and high-fat dairy products, are also higher in saturated fats” (Pg. 32).
Where are the saturated fats, cholesterol, and trans fats that raise LDL cholesterol levels predominantly found?
According to the United States Department of Health and Human services & United States Department of Agriculture (DHH and USDA, 2015) saturated fats are found in animal fats, as well as plant fats such as coconut and palm kernel oil while trans fats are found in animal fats and fully and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (p. 27). According to United States Food and Drug Administration’s Susan Mayne, Ph. D., the director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (2015) trans fats are “also present at very low levels in other edible oils, where it is unavoidably produced during the manufacturing process” (para. 6). According to National Cholesterol Education Program (2002) “Among the fatty acids that make up the total fat in the diet, only saturated fatty acids and trans fatty acids raise LDL cholesterol levels” (p.3263). However, according to the Institute of Medicine (2002) there is no safe level of cholesterol consumption and any incremental increase also increases the risk of developing coronary heart disease (p. 542). Thus, the consumption of high fat foods, such as meat and dairy products which contain cholesterol, saturated fat, and trans fats as well as plant foods such as coconut and palm kernel oils and oils such as olive, canola and other oils can directly increase the risk of raising LDL cholesterol levels.
Is there currently a safe level of consumption of cholesterol, saturated fat, and trans fat?
The most respected scientific body in the United States, the Institute of Medicine (IOM), recognizes that there is no safe level of cholesterol, saturated, and trans fat consumption. The Institute of Medicine (IOM), (2002) recognizes that their “report doesn’t set maximum levels for saturated fat, cholesterol, or trans fatty acids, as increased risk exists at levels above zero, however the recommendation is to eat as little as possible while consuming a diet adequate in important other essential nutrients”(para. 8). Therefore to avoid the increasing the risk of developing Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) it is recommended to eat no animal products, processed oils, or fully and partially hydrogenated oils as these products increase the risk of developing CHD. In fact the IOM (2002) warns against the consumption of high fat diets in general as:
High fat diets can be detrimental to individuals already susceptible to obesity and will worsen the metabolic consequences of obesity, particularly risk of CHD. Moreover, high fat diets are usually accompanied by increased intakes of saturated fatty acids, which can raise plasma low density lipoprotein cholesterol concentrations and further heighten risk for CHD (P. 15).
Thus a high fat diet similar to an Atkins and Paleo type diets could potentially be detrimental to health by increasing LDL cholesterol levels within the blood. Interestingly, according to Dr. Atkins’ Autopsy, Dr. Atkins died from a blow to the head after falling on the ice, which the medical examiner attributed to heart attack. Though no proof of this has been established, his medical records showed that at the time of his death he weighed 258lbs at 6 feet tall and his medical history showed signs of congestive heart failure and hypertension (McDougall, 2004).
Cholesterol, Saturated Fat, and Trans Fat Overview:
Cholesterol, saturated fat, and Trans fats are found primarily in animal flesh and animal products. Therefore, even moderate consumption of animal flesh or animal products that contain cholesterol, saturated fat, and trans fats is discouraged. To decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease it is recommend that all animal products be eliminated from the diet. All animal foods contain varying amounts of cholesterol, saturated fat, and trans fats. The Institute of Medicine ([IOM], 2002) recognizes that there is no safe level of cholesterol, saturated fat or trans fat (pp. 422-542) that can be consumed and according to Susan Mayne, Ph.D., Director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, trans fats occur naturally in meat and dairy products as well as processed oils and processed foods containing oils, and fully and partially hydrogenated oils (para. 6). Therefore, each of these products contains at least one or all of the factors for increasing an individual’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Eliminating all animal flesh and animal products as well as tropical oils such as coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil and processed foods containing oils and partially and fully hydrogenated oils decreases the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
Why do the guidelines promote the consumption of animal-based foods that contain cholesterol, saturated fat, and trans fat if a risk exists above zero mg?
The dietary guidelines are written and coauthored by the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and are meant to inform Americans about what to eat to improve their health and wellbeing while simultaneously decreasing chronic illness. However, the USDA also has a vested interest in the agriculture sector which promotes the consumption of agricultural commodities, or animal products. Therefore, according to Herman (2010), conflicts of interest arise when producing the dietary guidelines and food and drug industries are occasionally favored over the health and wellbeing of the general public (p. 285).
According to Esselstyn (2001):
The basic diet favored by these groups contains not only grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruit, but also oil, low-fat milk and milk products, butter, cheese, poultry, lean meat and fish. I am unaware of any research proving that by eating such a diet one can achieve a cholesterol level of 150mg/dL or avoid CAD (coronary artery disease) (p. 172).
As research has shown consuming cholesterol, saturated fat, and trans fat found in animal-based foods increases an individual’s total blood cholesterol levels. Which means animal products of any kind increase cholesterol levels within the blood Increased total blood cholesterol levels increase the risk of having coronary heart disease. Having a total blood cholesterol over 150mg/dL significantly increases one’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease or having a cardiovascular event (a heart attack).
However, having a blood cholesterol under 150mg/dL has been deemed beneficial. According to Castelli, (2001), director of the Framingham heart study, during the first 50 years of Framingham heart study, only 5 individuals developed coronary artery disease with a cholesterol level less than 150 mg/dl (p. 16F). This research indicates that heart disease rarely develops in individuals with a total blood cholesterol of 150mg/dl or less. In fact, this research indicates that individuals with a total blood cholesterol under 150mg/dl generally do not experience coronary heart disease and the lower the total blood cholesterol, the less likely an individual is to experience a heart attack.
According to Roberts (2010), “the only way to produce atherosclerosis experimentally is by feeding high-cholesterol and/or high-saturated fat diets to herbivores” (p. 1364). Only herbivores (plant-eaters) experience atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), which increase the risk of heart attacks, when they consume an unnatural diet, or in this case, a diet that contains animal-based foods. Therefore, avoiding animal-based foods and avoiding tropical oils and processed foods containing oils greatly decreases the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
Below is a table of animal-based and processed foods. This table it meant to demonstrate where a majority of the total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol come from in the diet. Serving sizes have been provided to demonstrate how these relatively small portions sizes provide too much cholesterol, saturated fat, and trans fat. Remember, the IOM (2005) recognizes that their “report doesn’t set maximum levels for saturated fat, cholesterol, or trans fatty acids, as increased risk exists at levels above zero” (para. 8). Having a small amount of these foods can be challenging especially when there is no safe amount. Because limiting these foods can be difficult for some individuals, it is therefore recommended to eliminate these foods rather than have small amounts which may tempt one to have more.
|Product||Serving Size||Total Fat||Sat. Fat||% Sat. Fat||Trans Fat||Cholesterol|
|2% reduced fat milk||1 glass (8oz or 240mL)||5g||3.5g||71%||0g||25mg|
|Organic grass fed beef||4oz||18g||8g||45%||1g||80mg|
|Organic egg||1 egg||4g||1.5g||40%||0g||210mg|
|Shrimp||2 to 4 shrimp||.5g||0g||<1%||0g||155mg|
|Chicken||4oz ( is approximately 1/3 to 1/4 of entire chicken breast)||3g||1g||36%||0g||70mg|
|Turkey bacon||1 slice||2.5g||1g||36%||0g||15mg|
|Reduced fat whipped cream cheese||2Tbsp||5g||3.5g||75%||0g||15mg|
|Margarine (Dairy Based)||1Tbsp||5g||0.5g||10%||0g||<5mg|
|Pre- Packaged Lean Dinners / Frozen Entree||1 package||6g||2.5g||45%||0g||10mg|
|Protein / Meal Replace Drink||11oz drink||8g||1.5g||17%||0g||10mg|
|Most of these products contain a small amount of trans-fat. Trans fats are naturally found in animal products and contribute to the progression of heart disease. The small serving sizes of these products is why trans-fat is not listed on the label. To learn more about why this is, visit the page “Trans Fat” page in the “overview of a food label section”.
More information about these foods can be found in the section “deconstructing food labels.”
For those individuals finding it difficult avoiding animal-based foods be on the lookout for plant-based meat substitutes. While these products are not encouraged, they can be used to help make the transition to a plant-based diet. Plant-based meat substitutes are starting to becoming readily available within grocery stores. However, be aware that some of these products may contain large amounts of saturated or trans fats so they should be avoided. However, these products do not contain cholesterol. Look for plant based options that do not contain oil, large amounts of saturated fat, or isolated soy protein. These products are available but you will need to read the labels carefully.
Are there other risks associated with the consumption of meat and dairy products?
The consumption of meat and dairy products along with the consumption of tropical oils and fully and partially hydrogenated oils increase the risk of developing coronary heart disease via the consumption of cholesterol, saturated fat, and trans fats found in these products, according to the Institute of Medicine (2002, para. 8).
Animal-based foods also contain high levels of L-carnitine and Choline (found in red meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and milk) which our gut bacteria break down to produce trimethylamine N-oxide, which increases the development of atherosclerosis in humans (Tang et al., 2013; Koeth et al., 2013).
The saturated fat and trans fats found in meat and dairy products have also been linked to the development of insulin resistance, the precursor to type II Diabetes according to Estadella, et al. (2013, p.1).
Another issue associated with the consumption of meat is that red meat is considered a probable carcinogen, while processed meats are now classified as carcinogenic. This classification was assigned by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the World Health Organization (WHO), after reviewing over 800 studies linking red and processed meat to colorectal cancer (IARC, 2015). Processed meats are now known to cause colorectal cancer in individuals. According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services and the United States Department of Agriculture (DHH and USDA, 2015) United States 2015-2020 dietary guidelines for Americans, colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States and approximately 1.2 million adult men and women have a history of colorectal cancer (p. 3).
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