By Karen J. Nolan, PhD and Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN
The Fat and Cholesterol Counter (Pocket Books, 2014) shows how to protect yourself from the number one cause of death in the US – heart disease. It also lists food counts for fat (saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated), trans fat, cholesterol, fiber and sugar to help you make the best choices so you can count on a healthy heart.
For far too long a major public health message in the US has been to eat less fat. As research has evolved we have come to realize that not all fats are created equal. A daily dose of healthy fats may be a wiser choice than a low fat eating plan.
The Story of Fats
In the mid-1980s we were all urged to lower fat intake. What the experts really meant was that we should eat fewer foods high in fat and eat more fruits, vegetables and healthy whole grain carbohydrates. Food companies viewed this as a marketing opportunity and soon the supermarkets were flooded with nonfat and low fat cookies, ice cream, salad dressing, cheese, and sour cream. We had swapped sugar and starch for fat and very few people increased the amount of fruit, vegetable or fiber they ate.
As the science of fats evolved researchers realized that eating a moderate amount of fat — not a low fat diet — might be the best approach while trans fat should be avoided. Sadly the only message that was heard by consumers, loud and clear, is that fat is bad for you. But we know now that simply isn’t true.
The Cholesterol Story
More than 55 years ago, researchers began to monitor 5,000 residents from Framingham, Massachusetts. The researchers discovered, by following these people, that there was a connection between the level of cholesterol in the blood and the risk for heart disease. This was groundbreaking news. From that point on, high levels of total cholesterol became a marker for heart disease and remains so today.
Even though we currently know a lot about cholesterol, the story is still unfolding. Many experts question whether our current recommendation for the amount of cholesterol to eat daily is too low. Other countries – Canada, Australia, the European Union, United Kingdom, Ireland, Korea, Japan, India and New Zealand – no longer recommend an upper limit of cholesterol intake each day. The experts from these countries do not feel that restricting cholesterol provides heart health benefits. It might be time to re-evaluate the recommendation for cholesterol levels in the US, too.
Why are sugar and fiber important?
Americans eat far too much sugar and not enough fiber. When the low fat eating craze took effect, experts hoped that people would lower their intake of high fat foods and substitute healthy carbohydrates instead – whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables. This did not happen. Instead we piled on refined carbohydrates with limited fiber and lots of sugar – white bread, cookies, cake, white rice, candy, soda and sweetened fruit drinks.
Whole grains, which provide fiber, boost your immune system, reduce your risk for type 2 diabetes, and reduce inflammation, a major player in heart disease. Yet, 96% of Americans don’t eat enough fiber each day and most of eat far too much sugar, as much as 19 to 25 teaspoons a day!
We still have a lot to learn about the connection between sugar and heart disease. But we do know that eating too much sugar provides no health benefits and eating less has a positive effect on your health.