It is no secret that abnormal levels of fats and cholesterol in the blood are associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease. These fats and cholesterol are called blood lipids, and the good news is that there are effective ways to manage them. In fact, dramatic improvements in lipid levels can be achieved through simple lifestyle changes.
The National Institutes of Health National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) has developed a set of therapeutic lifestyle changes for reducing the risk of coronary heart disease. These guidelines for change are designed primarily to lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad”) cholesterol and to manage other risk factors associated with the metabolic syndrome. This cluster of risk factors is associated with cardiovascular disease and diabetes and includes the following: abdominal obesity, high blood pressure, abnormally low high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good”) cholesterol, a high level of triglycerides (the chemical form in which most fat exists in the body), and high blood glucose.
National guidelines have established a goal of LDL cholesterol below 100 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl) for most people and have recently given physicians the option to lower LDL cholesterol to less than 70 mg/dl in people considered to be at very high risk (such as those with established coronary heart disease and/or diabetes). A fasting triglyceride level of less than 150 mg/dl is considered normal for both men and women. An HDL cholesterol level of at least 40 mg/dl is recommended for men and a level of at least 50 mg/dl is recommended for women.
The first lifestyle change recommended by the NCEP is to reduce your intake of saturated fat and cholesterol. Saturated fat should be less than 7% of your total calories per day, and dietary cholesterol should be less than 200 mg per day.
Saturated fat is found mostly in foods that come from animals: meat, poultry fat, lard, butter, cheese, and other dairy products. It is also found in foods from tropical plants such as coconut oil, palm oil, and cocoa butter. Saturated fat is solid at room temperature. If you can see solid fat in your food — such as the fatty strips in bacon or the fat found under chicken skin — chances are that there is a significant amount of saturated fat present.
It’s easy to eat too much saturated fat. For example, a grilled cheese sandwich made with two pieces of bread, two slices of American cheese, and one pat of butter contains 11 grams (99 calories) of saturated fat. If additional butter is used to cook the sandwich, or if it is served with French fries, the meal has even more saturated fat. So what many people might consider a simple lunch contains more than the recommended daily upper limits for saturated fat intake. (See “Saturated Fat Goals” for more information about saturated fat intake.)
If you do not know your recommended daily calorie intake, ask your physician for a referral to a registered dietitian. A registered dietitian can calculate the number of calories you need to achieve and maintain a healthy weight and can give you personalized suggestions for how to minimize your saturated fat intake — without giving up all of the foods you enjoy.