When it comes to nutrition, there are many misconceptions. One of the biggest misconceptions is that fats and cholesterol are always “bad.” This idea says you should almost always avoid fats in your diet because they will impact your health by raising your cholesterol and causing you to gain weight.

This idea has caused many people to turn to fat-free diets with the hope of maintaining healthy cholesterol levels. 

However, the truth is that not all fats are bad, and some can even positively affect your cholesterol. Fats and cholesterol are both important to your body’s natural functions, and understanding the difference allows you to make more informed decisions for your health.

What Is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance produced naturally by the body. However, cholesterol is not a type of fat itself. Your body needs cholesterol for several important functions, like building cells, producing nutrients like vitamin D, and regulating some hormones. However, too much cholesterol can turn into a problem.

Your body can obtain cholesterol in two main ways. The body’s primary source of cholesterol is the liver. Your liver can make all the cholesterol needed to support your bodily functions. The second way you can obtain cholesterol is through animal-based foods. Red meat, poultry, and dairy products have significant dietary cholesterol. Consuming too much cholesterol can upset the healthy balance of cholesterol levels in your body.

There are three types of lipoproteins in the body that carry cholesterol: low-density lipoprotein (LDL), its precursor, very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL), and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). HDL cholesterol is the “good” cholesterol, and LDL is the “bad” cholesterol. An abundance of LDL can cause build-up along the walls of the arteries, affect your circulation and cause an array of potential health issues. Meanwhile, HDL carries excess cholesterol from the bloodstream and back to the liver to be broken down.

High HDL cholesterol is often linked to a higher risk of heart disease, heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases.

Factors that impact your cholesterol levels are physical activity, weight, and diet. Genetics may also play a role in your body’s ability to remove VLDL and LDL cholesterol from the blood. Because of the potential risks of high cholesterol, you should visit your doctor to check your cholesterol levels regularly, at least every five years.

What Are the Different Types of Fats?

In terms of biology, fats are compounds made up of groupings of 3 fatty acids and a glycerol backbone. This is also called a triglyceride. From a nutrition standpoint, fats are important macronutrients, meaning the body can use them as energy sources. The body cannot produce fats on its own and can only obtain them from food. In the context of dietary fats, the term “fat” can refer to several key types.

The three types of fat are unsaturated fats, trans fats, and saturated fats. Each of these fats is found in different foods and can affect your health in different ways.

Unsaturated Fats

Unsaturated fats are the healthiest forms of dietary fats. The two types of unsaturated fats are monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Each type is differentiated by its chemical makeup. Monounsaturated fats have one double bond in their molecular construction, while polyunsaturated fats have somewhere between two and six.

The most common monounsaturated fats include palmitoleic acid and oleic acid. Monounsaturated fats can be found in sources like plant oils as well as avocados, peanut butter, chicken, pork, and beef.

The most common forms of polyunsaturated fats include omega-3 precursor alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). These three polyunsaturated fats are omega-3 fatty acids.DHA and EPA offer many health benefits, while ALA acts as a precursor to these two fatty acids, helping the body convert the other two forms. 

ALA can be found in walnuts, flaxseeds, and sunflower seeds, and most Americans get adequate levels of this short-chain precursor from diet alone. DHA and EPA are found in fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and herring, but they can also be found in algae, and your body is in need of these omegas.

Trans Fats

What Is the Difference Between Cholesterol and Fat?

These are the unhealthy fats you want to avoid as much as possible. Trans fats negatively impact your health and can even increase your risk for potential diseases, like heart disease and diabetes.

Trans fats are found almost exclusively in processed foods. A key source of trans fat is partially hydrogenated oils, which are becoming less common in food. Some sources of trans fats include fried foods like doughnuts, baked goods, and cookies.

Saturated Fats

Saturated fats are not as bad for you as trans fats, but that does not mean they are good. You should work to consume saturated fats in moderation. American dietary guidelines recommend that saturated fats do not account for more than 10% of your daily calorie intake.

Foods high in saturated fats include red meat, cheese, butter, and ice cream. Plant-based fats such as coconut and palm oil are high in saturated fat.

What Is the Difference Between Cholesterol and Fat?

Both cholesterol and fat are lipids in the body that are present in the blood, and they are both important for our bodily function. Although, as we have seen, form matters for both.

One of the key differences between cholesterol and fat is that fat is a macronutrient, and cholesterol is not. Consequently, fat can be used as a source of energy for the body, whereas cholesterol cannot. Instead, cholesterol helps make up the construction of cell membranes and helps to synthesize steroid hormones, which is still very useful.

Another notable difference is that dietary fats can be found in various foods, including both plant and animal-based sources, while cholesterol is found in animal products, with few exceptions. Meat and dairy products contain high levels of cholesterol.

Although they are different, cholesterol and fat are related in one key way. Consuming saturated and trans fats directly impacts your blood cholesterol levels. For example, foods high in saturated and trans fats encourage your liver to produce more cholesterol, which can potentially cause high LDL cholesterol levels, especially when consumed in excess. Conversely, consuming unsaturated fats may help promote healthier cholesterol levels.

Does Eating Less Fat Help Your Cholesterol?

Your fat intake can impact your cholesterol in several ways, but eating large amounts of saturated fats and trans fats is a quick way to raise your cholesterol levels. Although fats can affect your cholesterol levels, you should not immediately turn to fat-free or reduced-fat foods as a magic solution to healthy cholesterol. In some cases, fat-free foods can be just as bad, if not worse, for your health.

When replacing fat in foods, many manufacturers compensate by adding sugar, starches, or refined grains, increasing the number of carbohydrates. Too many carbohydrates, especially processed ones, can raise blood sugar and have additional health side effects. Therefore, you should replace unhealthy fats with healthier alternatives instead of turning to fat-free foods.

If your diet is high in saturated fats and trans fats, you should work to replace them with healthier, unsaturated fats. Make sure to also include whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and proteins. All forms of fat are high in calories, so even though healthy fats are beneficial, they can still lead to weight gain.

How Can I Support Healthy Cholesterol Levels?

Maintaining a healthy balance of HDL and LDL is crucial for maintaining healthy circulation and promoting your overall cardiovascular health. Minimizing your consumption of saturated and trans fats is just one great way to maintain healthy cholesterol levels. Some ways to maintain healthy cholesterol levels are to:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Avoid smoking
  • Drink alcohol in moderation
  • Be mindful of your diet

Use Healthy Fats to Your Advantage

Cholesterol and fats are different, but fats can directly impact your cholesterol levels. To maintain healthy cholesterol levels, it is important to be conscious of the types of fat you eat. By learning more and being aware, you're taking important steps towards building your best health.

Sources:

What is Cholesterol? | American Heart Association

High cholesterol - Symptoms and causes | Mayo Clinic

Dietary Fat and Cholesterol - 9.319 - Extension | Colorado State University

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