Good Fats, Bad Fats.

This article will focus on fats, the recent health claims approved by the FDA regarding keeping your diet healthy with the right kinds of fats (the good fats), and how to apply this to a bodybuilding diet.

Understanding the balancing act of good nutrition is central to getting the desirable muscle building, fat loss, performance enhancement, and healthy results you are looking for.

Achieving optimum performance-nutrition is a delicate balancing act: too little of an essential nutrient, and inadequate growth occurs; too much of an essential nutrient, and adverse effects occur.

So getting it right and making sure your nutrient intake is in the optimum zone is extremely important.

What Are Your Goals?
>Lose Fat
>Build Muscle
>Improve Energy

The Health Food Movement

The idea of food substances being bad for you started to gain national attention during the 1950's when a major event in health commenced; the health food movement. This movement was in response to the growing concern people had about the possible negative health impacts from the growing number of chemicals being added to our foods.

This included things like preservatives, pesticide residuals, artificial colors, artificial flavors, and the like. It also included the growing number of chemically altered food substances, like hydrogenated oils (also known as trans fatty acids). Scientific studies were also beginning to appear that were reporting about population health trends in relationship to what people were ingesting; both positive and negative trends.

The in 1989, the National Academy of Sciences published a massive report titled "Diet and Health: Implications for Reducing Chronic Disease Risk." It was in this report where a group of experts finally agreed that there is evidence that some dietary components can prevent diseases, but also that some dietary components can cause diseases.

In the context of the Good Fats, Bad Fats title of this article, I will focus on a quick overview about fats, the recent health claims approved by the FDA regarding keeping your diet healthy with the right kinds of fats (the good fats), and how to apply this to a bodybuilding diet. I will also review about the fats that are considered bad for health, like trans fatty acids.

Dietary Fats!
There are many different types of fats and they can be conveniently divided into four main categories: saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, and trans fatty acids. Learn more about them!
[ Click here to learn more. ]

The type of fat intake, the balance of Omega-6 and Omega-3 fat intake, and the total amount of fat intake are all important factors to your health, performance and bodybuilding efforts. One of my principles of health and performance nutrition is: to supplement right, you need to first eat right. As you will see for yourself, this is particularly true when it comes to fat intake.

Lipids Primer

Lipids are a major macronutrient group, which includes fats and oils. Lipids have many vital body functions and are an essential part of every cell. In the diet, lipids are also found with important essential fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A, D, E, and K. They are also a source of essential fatty acids (EFAs), such as linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid, which have both structural roles and various metabolic roles in the body, including the production of neurotransmitters and numerous hormones.

Lipids also make foods taste better - one of the characteristics that often leads to their over-consumption. New research on athletes has shown that in addition to maintaining the proper daily intake of lipids for health, there are certain lipid supplements that can help boost performance.

Fats, Oils, Lipids, What's In A Name?

Lipid is the scientific term used to describe a diverse group of bio-molecules that vary considerably in composition and structure; they contain carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen; and are insoluble in water. Fats and oils are therefore subcategories of lipids.

Fats are solid at room temperature, and oils are liquid at room temperature. Fats and oils consist mainly of triglyceride (also called triacylglycerol) molecules; which contains glycerol, and three fatty acids. Other common dietary lipids include cholesterol and phospholipids.

Table 1 provides an overview of the common fatty acids, their saturated/unsaturated status, and the common abbreviation used to refer to them.

Table 1

Summary of common dietary fatty acids. Fatty acids are carbon chains. With hydrogen atoms attached to the carbons. Saturated fatty acids have no double carbon bonds, and all of the carbon atoms are saturated with hydrogen atoms, which are connected to them; and are called saturated fatty acids.

Some fatty acids have one or more double bounds between carbon atoms, which reduce the number of hydrogen atoms attached to the fatty acid carbon chain. These are called unsaturated fatty acids. Fatty acids with one unsaturated carbon are called monounsaturated fatty acids, those with two or more unsaturated carbons are called polyunsaturated fatty acids.

In the fatty acid abbreviation system used below, in the right column, the first number is the carbon chain length, the second number is the number of unsaturated double bonds, and the third number is the number of the carbon where the first unsaturated double bond occurs. The ω is the symbol for Omega.

For example, linoleic acid (C18:2, ω-6) has 18 carbon atoms, 2 double bonds, and the first double bond is at the number 6 carbon, from the methyl group of the carbon chain. The fatty acid carbon chain has a methyl group at one end and a carboxyl group at the other end. A methyl group is carbon with three hydrogen atoms attached to it. A carboxyl group is a carbon atom with a double bonded oxygen atom, and a hydroxyl (OH) group attached to it.

Fatty Acid Saturation Status Fatty Acid Common Name Fatty Acid Abbreviation
Saturated Fatty Acid Butyric Acid C4:0
Saturated Fatty Acid Caproic Acid C6:0
Saturated Fatty Acid Caprylic C8:0
Saturated Fatty Acid Capric Acid C10:0
Saturated Fatty Acid Lauric Acid C12:0
Saturated Fatty Acid Myristic Acid C14:0
Saturated Fatty Acid Palmitic Acid C16:0
Saturated Fatty Acid Stearic Acid C18:0
Saturated Fatty Acid Arachidic Acid C20:0
Unsaturated Fatty Acid, Mono Palmitoleic Acid C16:1,ω-7
Unsaturated Fatty Acid, Mono Oleic Acid C18:1, ω-9
Unsaturated Fatty Acid, Polly Linoleic Acid C18:2, ω-6
Unsaturated Fatty Acid, Polly Linolenic Acid C18:3, ω-3
Unsaturated Fatty Acid, Polly Gamma-Linolenic Acid C18:3, ω-6
Unsaturated Fatty Acid, Polly Stearidonic Acid C18:4, ω-3
Unsaturated Fatty Acid, Polly Arachidonic Acid C20:4, ω-6
Unsaturated Fatty Acid, Polly Eicosapentaenoic Acid C20:5, ω-3
Unsaturated Fatty Acid, Polly Docosahexaenoic Acid C22:6, ω-3

The Main Functions Of Lipids In The Body

Lipids provide the body with fuel; aid in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins; act as energy store-houses within cells; and supply the essential fatty acids important to growth, development, and health maintenance. Lipids are part of cell membranes.

In addition, lipids provide protective padding for body structures and organs, supply building blocks for other molecules, serve as building blocks for all cell membranes and other cell structures, and provide the body with insulation from cold.

Lipids also are building blocks of other bio-molecules made in the body, such as steroids (made from cholesterol made in the body), and eicosanoids (prostaglandins, thromboxanes and leukotrienes). You can find more details about the classification of lipids in my book, "Dynamic Nutrition for Maximum Performance".

The Good Fats

Essential Fatty Acids

The term "essential fatty acid" is often incorrectly used by the media and on product labels. The two primary essential fatty acids are called linoleic acid (an Omega-6 fatty acid) and alpha-linolenic acid (an Omega-3 fatty acid). These two fatty acids cannot be made in any significant amounts by the body; therefore, it is essential that they are ingested on a daily basis from the diet.

Under certain circumstances, a third fatty acid called arachidonic acid (an Omega-6 fatty acid), which the body makes from linoleic acid, becomes essential if dietary intake of linoleic acid is deficient.

Linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid are both unsaturated fatty acids that are eighteen carbon atoms long. In addition to their structural roles in the body and their roles as precursors of important bio-molecules and hormones, these two fatty acids are also used for energy.

The Lowdown On EFA's!
Personally when I first heard that there were types of fats that actually helped your body and helped you lose weight, I did not believe it. After doing a pretty good amount of reading and some research...
[ Click here to learn more. ]

The intake balancing game is of particular importance regarding these two essential fatty acids. This is where the dietary reference intake approach used by the government has screwed things up a bit. The government's approach to determining how much of an essential nutrient the human body needs, is a little ass-backwards.

It looks at nutrient intake data based on the average intake of the population at large. Now while this is useful, it is far from being the correct approach for determining what nutrition the human body needs for optimum health and peak performance.

You see, this national average nutrient intake approach started over 50 years ago, when most of the essential nutrients were not even identified yet. We now know much more, and this approach needs to be changed. The better way to approach determining human nutrient intake needs is to focus on what the human body needs to be its best. A simple enough idea, right?

While we wait for the government to catch-up with cutting-edge science, individuals need to take matters like this into their own hands to make sure their dietary intake is adequate to promote optimum health and maximum performance; not suboptimum average health or performance from following the government guidelines.

The dietary reference intakes for essential fatty acids is as follows:

  • Linoleic acid - adult range of intake is 10 to 17 grams per day. (This is in the okay range.)

  • Alpha Linolenic acid - adult range of intake is 1 to 1.6 grams per day. (However, this needs to be at least 3 times more then recommended to start approaching optimum essential fatty acid balance.)

It is obvious that there is a big imbalance of intake between these two essential fatty acids. This imbalance is primarily a result of basing intake recommendations on the average consumption of essential fatty acids in the U.S.A. population. The significance of this imbalance is several-fold.

For example, too much linolenic acid causes the over production of substances in the body that are pro-inflammatory and also make the blood cells to stick together more. This leads to increased risk to heart disease, arthritis, and poor health. Diets with adequate alpha-linolenic acid tend to have the opposite effects of too much linoleic acid, and reduce the production of inflammatory substances, and improve the characteristics of the blood, and blood flow.

An overview of tips is provided at the end of this article, for making your fat intake healthier.

How Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) & Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) Fit Into The Lipid Picture

These two fatty acids were entered into the media limelight in during the 1980's when scientists examining the traditional diet of Eskimos in Greenland-high in fats and animal proteins-discovered that these people experienced a very low rate of cardiovascular diseases. Upon further examination, researchers discovered that one of the health-contributing factors was the cholesterol and triglyceride lowering effects of EPA and DHA (both Omega-3 fatty acids).

There are now also studies documenting the improvement of athletic performance ingesting anywhere from 2,000 mg to 4,000 mg per day of EPA and DHA from eating fish and taking EPA/DHA dietary supplements. Researchers have observed improvements in strength and aerobic performance as well. Among the athletes tested, these improvements included increased strength in the bench press, faster running times, reduced muscular inflammation, and jumping further.

Researchers speculate that these effects are due to the beneficial functions of EPA and DHA. These functions include growth hormone production, anti-inflammatory action, enhanced oxygen metabolism, improved cell membrane response to insulin, and lowered blood viscosity (blood-thinning effects). Also, improved oxygen and nutrient delivery to the muscles and improved recovery after rigorous bouts of exercise and training.

Some other benefits of ingesting EPA and DHA, also alpha-linoleic acid which is used to make EPA and DHA in the body, include:

  • Improved insulin functioning.
  • Decreased production of inflammatory substances in the body
  • Decreased production of thromboxane A2, which is a vasoconstrictor and blood platelet aggregator.
  • An increase in thromboxane A3, which is a weak vasoconstrictor and weak blood platelet aggregator.

In addition to getting EPA and DHA through supplements, these fatty acids are found in high amounts in cold-water fish, such as cod, salmon, sardines, trout, and mackerel, and in lower amounts in tuna fish.

FDA's Approved Health Claim For EPA & DHA

The FDA announced in 2004 their approval of another qualified health claim for the reduced risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) from the consumption of conventional foods that contain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) omega-3 fatty acids. This is in addition to the similar qualified health claim FDA approved back in 2000 for dietary supplements that contain EPA and DHA. This confirms the early observational studies with Eskimos that EPA and DHA are heart healthy.

It was also interesting to note that among the studies FDA reviewed, some of the studies examined people with cardiovascular diseases. FDA mentioned that they provided evidence that EPA and DHA may have beneficial effects to help improve health in people who have certain cardiovascular diseases. However, because this is a disease treatment claim, it does not meet the requirement of qualifying for evidence to support a disease prevention claim, which health claims are restricted to. Hopefully the medical community is paying attention to findings like these.

FDA Lipid Related Health Claims (Olive Oil & Omega-3 Fatty Acids)

Also in 2004, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced the approval of a qualified health claim for monounsaturated fatty acids from olive oil and reduced risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). FDA noted that the evidence is limited that consumers may reduce their risk of CHD if they consume monounsaturated fat from olive oil and olive oil-containing foods in place of foods high in saturated fat, while at the same time not increasing the total number of calories consumed daily.

"With this claim, consumers can make more informed decisions about maintaining healthy dietary practices," said Dr. Lester M. Crawford, Acting FDA Commissioner. "Since CHD is the number one killer of both men and women in the U.S., it is a public health priority to make sure that consumers have accurate and useful information on reducing their risk." Due to the fact that this is a health claim based on emerging data, the health claim indicates the following:

    Limited and not conclusive scientific evidence suggests that eating about 2 tablespoons (23 grams) of olive oil daily may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease due to the monounsaturated fat in olive oil. To achieve this possible benefit, olive oil is to replace a similar amount of saturated fat and not increase the total number of calories you eat in a day.

FDA rated the strength of the body of scientific evidence based on the following factors: the level of persuasiveness (most or less persuasive), study type (intervention), study methodological quality, quantity (number of studies and subjects per study), consistency of the findings, and applicability to the general U.S. population. FDA relies principally on human studies that are primary reports of data collection when attempting to establish a substance-disease relationship and has consistently identified two endpoints with which to identify disease risk reduction for purposes of health claims evaluations: a) reduction in incidence of a disease, and; b) beneficial changes in surrogate endpoints for the disease.

To summarize the FDA's findings, the four most persuasive studies that collectively represent 117 subjects provide some scientific evidence to suggest a relationship between replacing one fat, like SFAs, with another, such as MUFAs from olive oil, and reduced risk of coronary heart disease. The majority of less persuasive studies did not observe a relationship between MUFAs from olive oil and reduced risk of CHD. None of the most persuasive or less persuasive studies suggested that MUFAs from olive oil, independent of SFAs displacement, would lower serum total and LDL-cholesterol levels.

However, keep in mind that while it is nice to have scientific studies to confirm these things, lets not forget about using common sense and time-tested health practices. Eating moderate amounts of natural foods that body needs, is better then overeating chemicals and dietary substances that the body does not need.

About MCT's

Commercial medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) products were first made in the 1950's using extracts of coconut oil. MCT's contain saturated fatty acids with chains of six to twelve carbon atoms. Part of the interest with medium-chain triglycerides stems from their use in clinical settings where patients had problems digesting and absorbing long-chain fatty acids. Apparently, MCT's tend to behave differently in the body than long chain fatty acids. They are more soluble in water and can pass from the intestines directly into the bloodstream.

Normally, fatty acids travel through the lymphatic system, eventually arriving at the liver and then enter into general circulation, a rather slow process. But because of their shorter carbon-chain configuration, it appears that the body favors MCT's as energy substrates. However, recent studies on long-distance athletes taking MCT products have not yet shown any significant improvements in athletic performance. Common side effects reported in these studies include abdominal cramping and diarrhea. If you plan to experiment with MCT's, you should use formulas that also contain the essential fatty acids.

MCT's are basically middle of the road, regarding health effects, better then saturated fatty acids, but not as good as essential fatty acids, EPA, DHA, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and monounsaturated fatty acids. It is best to focus on getting your essential fatty acid intake perfected, before experimenting with consumption of saturated, non-essential fatty acids.

Recently I have been reading articles that are claiming the MCT's in Coconut oils will shrink fat cells. One article in a women's magazine even had a headline that said: A "bad fat" from the pacific islands… This new craze apparently has started from the publishing of some new books about coconut oils. However, as I previously mentioned there are much healthier oils for you to include in your diets. Also, I have not seen any proof, cultural or scientific that supports the claims being made the MCT's shrink fat cells. If you encounter any research on this please e-mail it to me. A few months ago one of my clients wanted to jump on the coconut oil craze. I spent much time reviewing the evidence to reach my conclusion that coconut oil is middle of the road, not the best, not the worst. Before this I experimented with MCT's back in the early 1990's when bodybuilders started to use it. But, my observations and independent scientific studies did not report any measurable benefits of bodybuilders or other athletes taking MCT oils for fat loss or performance.

Other Lipids That Have Beneficial Effects On Athletes

Recently, attention has turned to a special phosphate lipid called phosphatidylserine (PS). PS is derived from the lipid lecithin. Lucas Meyer, Inc., a manufacturer of phosphatidylserine, has performed many clinical studies on the biological effects of PS. The original research focused on PS's ability to improve memory, concentration, and learning. More recently, researchers have found that PS can protect the body from tissue breakdown caused by the catabolic hormone cortisol, which is produced by the body during exercise and periods of mental stress and plays a role in molecular breakdown. In this way, PS intake can help protect your muscles and other tissues from breaking down.

A recent study conducted on athletes who were using PS discovered that there was a reduction of muscle soreness and an improvement in tissue buildup and muscle formation. Moreover, an overall sense of well-being was observed by the athletes taking PS. Therefore, PS may give you the mental edge that is important to any athlete who is undergoing the rigors of intensive training.

Researchers believe that the group of athletes taking PS probably experienced less muscle soreness because the amount of cortisol in the body was reduced, which in turn reduced the amount of muscle breakdown and tissue damage. In the case of using PS for memory, studies have found that taking 100 mg three times a day produced fast results. The studies using PS on athletes report that ranges between 300 and 800 mg a day, taken in divided dosages with meals, are safe and effective. The only problem associated with PS is the price. Authentic PS is extremely expensive. So while these research results are impressive, don't take PS at the expense of not taking your essentials like a comprehensive vitamin and mineral supplement and a high quality protein powder. Add PS to your regimen during times when the extra expense is worth it, during pre-season training and during the competition season.

The Bad Fats

Trans Fatty Acids

One of the bad fats getting the most attention has been around for over half a century; trans fatty acids, also called hydrogenated fats/oils. I am putting this first on the bad fats list, as it has been on my list of food ingredients to avoid from the start. Not just for the reasons that the National Academies of Science has reported, but also because it is a manmade structurally altered fatty acid (unnatural), that can become part of your cell membranes. In fact, based on research, it appears that trans fatty acids contribute to cell membrane malformation and malfunction, in addition to its other harmful health effects.

The big news that has finally caught the attention of the government occurred when the National Academies of Science determined that there was a zero tolerable intake level for trans fatty acids, due to the fact that as soon as they are present in the diet, they start to raise bad cholesterol levels (LDL cholesterol) in a dose related way. It is well established that the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases increases as LDL cholesterol levels increases in your body.

As result of this finding, nutrition facts labels will soon be required to list the amount of trans fatty acids foods contain. But, the better situation is that companies have already responded by getting rid of trans fatty acids in their food products.

Why Have Hydrogenated - Trans Fatty Acids In The First Place?

Not because it is good for you, that's for sure. Trans fat is made when manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oil during a process called hydrogenation. Hydrogenation increases the shelf-life and flavor stability of foods containing these fats (Aside: you see, so fresher, natural organic foods are generally better for you, from the simple fact that they are free from chemicals and altered substances that are designed for the benefit of the food's appearance and shelf-life, not necessarily better for your health).

Usually, in nature, the hydrogen atoms at a double bond in the fatty acid chain are positioned on the same side of the carbon chain. However, partial hydrogenation reconfigures some double bonds and the hydrogen atoms end up on different sides of the chain. This type of configuration is called "trans", which means "across" in Latin. The structure of a trans unsaturated chemical bond looks like the illustration below. The following table includes illustrations of key characteristics of the hydrogen - carbon profiles of saturated fats, unsaturated fats and trans fats.

Saturated Fat (i.e., saturated fatty acid) Unsaturated Fat (i.e., unsaturated fatty acid) Trans Fat (i.e., trans fatty acids)
Carbon-Carbon Single Bond. Carbon-Carbon Double Bond. Hydrogen atoms are on opposite sides of the chain of carbon atoms at the carbon-carbon double bond.

Where Do You Find trans Fat?

In most prepared foods and backed goods for starters. Trans fatty acids are found in some of the same foods as saturated fat, such as vegetable shortenings, some margarines, crackers, candies, cookies, fried foods, baked goods, snack foods, salad dressings, and other processed foods made with or fried in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.

The FDA proposed rule on trans fatty acids will require that the amount of trans fat be added to the amount of saturated fat per serving so that the amount of saturated fat and the percent Daily Value (%DV) per serving on the Nutrition Facts panel would be based on the sum of saturated and trans fats. When trans fatty acids are present, an asterisk (or other symbol) would be required after the heading "Saturated fat" to refer to a footnote stating that the product "*Includes __ g trans fat." This footnote would be optional on foods that contain no trans fat (i.e., less that 0.5 gram per serving, as analytical methods cannot reliably measure lower levels) except when a fatty acid or cholesterol claim is made. (See nutrition facts below for example.)

The following tables provide sample of the trans fatty acid, saturated fatty acid and cholesterol content of some common foods, and a table that compare butter to different margarine products. A key thing to look for when evaluating a food is look for all of the bad fats in addition to total fat content; total of saturated fat and trans fat, in addition to cholesterol content. Choose foods that are free from or low in these bad fats.

Total Fat, Saturated Fat, Trans Fat, and Cholesterol Content Per Serving

Product Serving Size Total Fat g Sat. Fat g %DV for Sat. Fat Trans Fat g Comb. Sat. & Trans Fat g Chol. mg %DV for Chol.
French Fried Potatoes± (Fast Food) Medium Size 26.9 6.7 36% 7.8 14.5 0 0%
Butter* 1 tbsp 10.8 7.2 36% 0.3 7.5 31.1 10%
Margarine, stick† 1 tbsp 11.0 2.1 11% 2.8 4.9 0 0%
Margarine, tub† 1 tbsp 6.7 1.2 6% 0.6 1.8 0.1 0.03%
Mayo‡ (Soybean Oil) 1 tbsp 10.8 1.6 8% 0 1.6 5.2 2%
Shortening± 1 tbsp 13.0 3.4 17% 4.2 7.6 0 0%
Potato Chips± Small bag 11.2 1.9 10% 3.2 5.1 0 0%
Milk, whole± 1 cup 6.6 4.3 22% 0.2 4.5 34.9 12%
Doughnut± 1 18.2 4.7 24% 5.0 9.7 23 8%
Cookies± (Cream Filled) 3 6.1 1.2 6% 1.9 3.1 0 0%
Cake, pound± 1 slice 16.4 3.4 17% 4.3 7.7 0 0%
± 1995 USDA Composition Data.
* Butter values from FDA Table of trans Values, 1/30/95.
† Values derived from 2002 USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 15.
‡ Prerelease values derived from 2003 USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 16.

FAT TYPE PER SERVING (*) (Serving Size - 1 tbsp.)

Product Total Fat g Saturated Fat g Trans Fat g Combined Saturated and Trans Fats g Cholesterol mg
Butter* 10.8 7.2 0.3 7.5 31.1
Margarine, stick† 11 2.1 2.8 4.9 0
Margarine, spread† 9.7 1.8 2.7 4.5 0
Margarine, tub† 6.7 1.2 0.6 1.8 0.1
Margarine, bottle‡ 0.4 0.1 0 0.1 0.2
(*) Butter values from FDA Table of trans Values, dated 1/30/95.
† Values derived from 2002 USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 15.
‡ Prerelease values derived from 2003 USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 16.


Cholesterol is needed by the human body. However, the cholesterol the body needs is made by the liver. It is also made in certain tissues. Cholesterol is used to build cell membranes and brain and nerve tissues. Cholesterol also helps the body produce steroid hormones needed for body regulation, including processing food, and bile acids needed for digestion.

How Do We Know High Cholesterol is a Problem?

It was in 1908 that scientists first observed that rabbits fed a diet of meat, whole milk, and eggs developed fatty deposits on the walls of their arteries that constricted the flow of blood. However, observations throughout history have always made a connection between the negative effects of this type of diet. Narrowing of the arteries by these fatty deposits that occurs is called atherosclerosis. It is a slowly progressing disease that can begin early in life but not show symptoms for many years. In 1913, scientists identified the substance responsible for the fatty deposits in the rabbits' arteries as cholesterol. But, keep in mind that recent evidence indicates that high cholesterol is only part of the story. Inflammatory substances in the body, which also occur on these high bad fat diets is also a contributing factor. As well as a screwed up physiology, and poor state of health.

In 1916, Cornelius de Langen, a Dutch physician working in Java, Indonesia, noticed that native Indonesians had much lower rates of heart disease than Dutch colonists living on the island. He reported that the Indonesians' healthy hearts were linked with their low levels of blood cholesterol. De Langen also noticed that both blood cholesterol levels and rates of heart disease soared among Indonesians who abandoned their native diet of mostly plant foods and ate a typical Dutch diet containing a lot of meat and dairy products. This was the first recorded suggestion that diet, cholesterol levels, and heart disease were related in humans. This phenomenon has subsequently been seen over and over again, in various cultures around the world. But de Langen's observations did not get much attention for more than 40 years.

After World War II, medical researchers in Scandinavia noticed that deaths from heart disease had declined dramatically during the war, when food was rationed; and meat, dairy products, and eggs were scarce. At about this time, other researchers found that people who suffered heart attacks had higher levels of blood cholesterol than people who did not have heart attacks.

Since this pioneering research, the body of scientific evidence has grown linking high blood cholesterol and a diet high in animal fats with an elevated risk of heart attack. For example, in countries where the average person's blood cholesterol level is less than 180 mg/dl, very few people develop atherosclerosis or have heart attacks. In many countries where a lot of people have blood cholesterol levels above 220 mg/dl, such as the United States, heart disease is the leading cause of death.

The typical U.S. diet contains substantial amounts of cholesterol, found in foods such as egg yolks, liver, meat, some shellfish, and whole-milk dairy products. Only foods of animal origin contain cholesterol.

Cholesterol is transported in the bloodstream as part of large molecules of fat and protein called lipoproteins. Cholesterol carried in low-density lipoproteins is called LDL-cholesterol; most cholesterol in the body is of this type. Cholesterol carried in high-density lipoproteins is called HDL-cholesterol.

The bloodstream carries cholesterol in particles delivering cholesterol to various body tissues to be used, stored or excreted. But too much of this circulating cholesterol can lead to accumulation and development of cholesterol-laden "plaque" in vessel linings, a condition called atherosclerosis. Cholesterol levels become elevated from ingestion of diets high in cholesterol, saturated fats and trans fats; in addition to other non-dietary factors such as:

  • Heredity: High cholesterol often runs in families. Even though specific genetic causes have been identified in only a minority of cases, genes still play a role in influencing blood cholesterol levels.

  • Body Weight: Excess body weight tends to increase blood cholesterol levels. Losing weight may help lower levels.

  • Exercise / Physical Activity: Regular exercise/physical activity may not only lower LDL cholesterol, but it may increase levels of the good HDL cholesterol. It also helps the linings of your circulatory system get stronger, and build-up a sturdy endothelium layer, which lines the inside of arteries.

  • Age and gender: Before menopause, women tend to have total cholesterol levels lower than men at the same age. Cholesterol levels naturally rise as men and women age. Menopause is often associated with increases in LDL cholesterol.

  • Stress: Studies have not shown stress to be directly linked to cholesterol levels. But experts say that because people sometimes eat fatty foods to console themselves when under stress, this can cause higher blood cholesterol. Additionally, stress is associated with another heart disease risk factor, called homocysteine. Homocysteine levels can also be reduced with good nutrition and dietary supplements containing folic acid, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12.

When blood flow to the heart is impeded, the heart muscle becomes starved for oxygen, causing chest pain (angina). If a blood clot completely obstructs a coronary artery affected by atherosclerosis, a heart attack (myocardial infarction) or death can occur.

A person's cholesterol "number" refers to the total amount of cholesterol in the blood. Cholesterol is measured in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl) of blood. (A deciliter is a tenth of a liter.) Doctors recommend that total blood cholesterol be kept below 200 mg/dl. The average level in adults in this country is over 200 mg/dl. Studies in the United States and other countries have consistently shown that total cholesterol levels above 200 mg/dl are linked with an increased risk of coronary heart disease.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), a component of NIH, a healthy person who is not at high risk for heart disease and whose total cholesterol level is in the normal range should have an HDL-cholesterol level of more than 35 mg/dl. NHLBI also says that an LDL-cholesterol level of less than 130 mg/dl is "desirable" to minimize the risk of heart disease. The NIH panel also advised that individuals with high total cholesterol or other risk factors for coronary heart disease should have their triglyceride levels checked along with their HDL-cholesterol levels.

Some very recent studies have suggested that LDL-cholesterol is more likely to cause fatty deposits in the arteries if it has been through a chemical change known as oxidation, which is why taking antioxidants like vitamins E and C are thought to help reduce the risk of heard disease.

Going, Going, Aaah... Heart Attack.

Athletes and active people especially need to pay special attention to what they eat, because of the large amount of food they need to consume.

Even when eating healthy, with a large consumption of food, the bad fat content can creep up, and start doing its dirty work. So next time you want to pig-out on junk food, think about the consequences that will occur later in your adulthood.

How A Heart Attack Happens

Heart disease most often occurs when cholesterol accumulates and forms "plaque" in a coronary artery. With blood flow impeded, the heart becomes starved for oxygen, causing chest pain (angina). If a blood clot forms and completely obstructs the artery, a heart attack (myocardial infarction) can occur.

FDA Consumer magazine (January-February 1999)

Triglycerides & VLDL

Triglycerides are transported through the blood to the body tissues. Most of the body's stored fat is in the form of triglycerides. Another lipoprotein--very low-density lipoprotein, or VLDL--has the job of carrying triglycerides in the blood. NHLBI considers a triglyceride level below 200 mg/dl to be normal.

It is not clear whether high levels of triglycerides alone increase an individual's risk of heart disease. However, high levels of triglycerides may be an important clue that someone is at risk of heart disease for other reasons such as diabetes. Many people who have elevated triglycerides also have high LDL-cholesterol or low HDL-cholesterol. Note that scientific studies have shown a VLDL lowering effect of the Omega-3 fatty acids previously mentioned, EPA and DHA. This is one of the ways researchers believe that EPA and DHA cause beneficial health effects.

Saturated Fatty Acids

It is just as important to reduce your intake of saturated fats as it is to reduce your intake of cholesterol; and also trans fats. Saturated fats independent of dietary cholesterol, raise LDL cholesterol. The findings from numerous research studies, in addition to the aforementioned "Diet and Health" report, concludes that high intake of saturated fatty acids is also associated with higher cancer rates.

Note: Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats do not promote the formation of artery-clogging fatty deposits the way saturated fats do. Some studies show that eating foods that contain these fats can reduce levels of LDL-cholesterol in the blood. Polyunsaturated fats, such as safflower and corn oil, tend to lower both HDL- and LDL-cholesterol. Edible oils rich in monounsaturated fats, such as olive and canola oil, however, tend to lower LDL-cholesterol without affecting HDL levels. So care must be taken when consuming even the good fats.

How To Maintain A Dietary Intake Of Healthy Lipids

For starters, avoid adding fats and oils to your foods or use them sparingly. This is one of the biggest sources of lipids in the diet. Added dietary fats include oils and butter used in cooking and high-fat dips and spreads. Also, stay on the lookout for high-fat foods, with hidden fats, such as baked goods, prepared foods, dairy products, and fast food, diner & restaurant meals.

Additionally, it is wise to keep your total fat intake to below 30 percent of your total daily calories, to as low as 15 percent depending upon your specific sport requirements (as discussed in my "Dynamic Nutrition for Maximum Performance" book). When going below 20% fat intake take special care to make sure you are maintaining adequate intake of the essential fatty acids.

You should minimize your intake of saturated fatty acids, trans fats and cholesterol, which occur mostly in animal products. You should also include high quality good fat supplements in your nutrition program that contains the essential fatty acids-especially in the pre-season and during your athletic season, in addition to EPA and DHA supplement. Trimming visible fats from beef and pork and removing the skin from poultry are good nutritional habits to develop, to reduce total fat intake, in addition go reducing bad fat intake.

Another guiding rule is to never overeat at any particular meal. Every time you overeat, the excess calories are stored as body fat. While on the subject of body fat, it is always a sound practice to avoid having excess fat on your body. This only creates dead weight that will slow you down and impair your performance. As you develop your performance nutrition skills and focus on the proper protein and carbohydrate intake, the fat management part of your diet will automatically fall into place. Don't reprimand yourself if you occasionally have the urge to spread some mayonnaise on a sandwich or to use high-fat salad dressing, just as long as it doesn't become the norm. And always remember that it is extremely important not to lose control of your eating habits around an important competition.

A Summary Of Tips To Get You On The Good Fat Path

  • Reduce total dietary fat intake to 30 percent or less of total calories.

  • Reduce saturated fat intake to less than 10 percent of calories.

  • Reduce cholesterol intake to less than 300 milligrams daily.

  • Choose vegetable oils (except coconut and palm kernel oils). Use oils that are higher in mono- and polyunsaturated fats like olive oil, canola oil and flax oil, followed by corn oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, and safflower oil.

  • Eat More Seafood. Most seafood is lower in saturated fat than meats, and contains heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA.

  • Choose Leaner Meats, such as poultry (without skin, not fried), lean beef and pork (trim visible fat, not fried).

  • Ask Before You Order When Eating Out. A good tip to remember is to ask which fats are being used in the preparation of your food when eating or ordering out.

  • Look at the Nutrition Facts panel when comparing products. Choose foods low in the combined amount of saturated fat and trans fat and low in cholesterol as part of a nutritionally adequate diet.

  • Strive to get your Omega-6 and Omega-3 Fatty acid Balance Right. Most diets are adequate in the essential omega-6 fatty, acid linoleic acid, but are too low in the essential omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid. The Dietary Reference Intakes for essential fatty acids is as follows: Linoleic acid, adult range of intake is 10 to 17 grams per day. (This is in the okay range.) Alpha Linolenic acid, DR adult range of intake is 1 to 1.6 grams per day. (But, this needs to be at least 3 times more then recommended to start approaching optimum essential fatty acid balance.)

  • Use Organic oils to avoid ingesting contaminants such as pesticides and other chemicals that may be present in non-organic oils.

  • Have some nuts too. The FDA recently approved a health claim for nuts, that determined the emerging scientific evidence suggests that eating certain nuts will help reduce risk of heart disease. This makes sense, as nuts are a good source of the good fats (oils), and also phytonutrients, and other essential nutrients. Eating 1.5 ounces of nuts per day as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol is a requirement of using the claim on food products. The types of food products include:
    1. Whole or chopped nuts listed below that are raw, blanched, roasted, salted, and/or lightly coated and/or flavored; any fat or carbohydrate added in the coating or flavoring must meet the definition of an insignificant amount.

    2. Nut-containing products other than whole or chopped nuts that contain at least 11 g of one or more of the nuts listed in 3.

    3. Types of nuts eligible for this claim are restricted to almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, some pine nuts, pistachio nuts, and walnuts. Types of nuts on which the health claim may be based is restricted to those nuts that were specifically included in the health claim petition, but that do not exceed 4 g saturated fat per 50 g of nuts.

Seafood & Mercury

An aside regarding eating seafood. The EPA and FDA have recently issued warnings regarding consumption of certain species of seafood that have been determined to contain higher amounts of the widespread contaminant mercury, in its most harmful form, methyl mercury. While the EPA and FDA advisories were aimed at pregnant women and children, I encourage you to consult these lists, to ensure you are selecting species of seafood that have no, or very little mercury contamination.

The general advisory can be found at:

You can also check the following to check on the mercury levels in fish and shellfish, and determine which types have the lowest amounts, and are safest to eat.

You can purchase farm raised seafood and other seafood products that are certified free from mercury. Taking a high quality EPA / DHA supplement that is certified pure is also a good choice.

Examples of Healthy Fatty Acid Products

Health From The Sun offers a wide selection of top quality plant oils, in liquid and sofgel forms. The Total EFA Oil Blend is one of my favorites, because it combines the best of several good oils to create a balanced formula of essential fatty acids, EPA and DHA. They recently launched a new line of oils called Health From the Sea. NOW brand also offers some high quality products, such as their Flax Seed Oil and Salmon Oil, for example.

Note to Readers: I would like to do a follow-up article that answers your frequently asked questions regarding Good Fats Bad Fats. So, please send me your questions regarding fats to Thanks for your help.

Reprinted with Permission. ©Copyright 2004 SUPPLEMENTFACTS International LLC. All rights reserved. This article is not intended to replace medical advice; consult your doctor for all matters related to your health.

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