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Fatty Acids: Unpopular Company

Cholesterol levels in the blood are an indication of potential coronary heart disease and atherosclerosis, as discussed in a recent Relief Society lesson. Since the writing of the manual, much new research has been reported, some questioning the role of cholesterol and some modifying its role. From the confusing reports emerges the following pattern:

Cholesterol consumption by the average United States citizen is too high; this is probably also true in other developed countries. Developing countries probably do not have this problem, because meat consumption is low. Blood cholesterol levels should be kept in the low normal to normal range (below 220 milligrams per 100 milliliters of blood, to be determined by your doctor). If your blood cholesterol is higher, you should cut back on eating meat and eggs, since they are high in cholesterol and saturated fats.

Most natural animal fats contain saturated fatty acids which, it appears, add to body cholesterol levels. If we reduce our total fat and saturated fat intake by switching to polyunsaturated fats found in margarines, vegetable oils, and many new processed foods, we can reduce cholesterol and fatty acid levels appreciably.

A one-to-one ratio of polyunsaturated fatty acids to saturated fatty acids is recommended, but total intake of fats must be reduced as well as the level of cholesterol content. The most important factor may well be the fatty acids, not cholesterol per se. Medium chain fatty acids have been found that do not influence cholesterol levels at all and do not seem to be related to coronary heart disease or atherosclerosis. In some European, countries these medium chain fatty acids are being used as a replacement for saturated and unsaturated fatty acids in processed foods. As yet they are not present in the United States food system in helpful amounts.

The American Heart Association recommends cholesterol intake be kept below 300 milligrams per day, that saturated fats be kept below 10 percent of the total caloric intake per day (less than 25 grams), that unsaturated fats be up to 10 percent monounsaturated fats and 10 percent polyunsaturated fats, and that total fat intake be reduced to no more than 90 grams (35 percent) daily. Since the current average fat intake in the United States population is about 40 percent, reducing it to 35 percent does not seem like it would be too difficult. However, a greater change is needed in U.S. citizens’ diets to move from heavy saturated fats to more polyunsaturates.

The United States food industry is answering the challenge by feeding cattle and swine polyunsaturates that are incorporated in their fat supply and passed on for human consumption. The United States Department of Agriculture is modifying its standards for beef, giving higher ratings to leaner beef instead of fatter animals.

The best solution is for individuals to keep their diet in balance but to cut down on total intake of food until their weight is within 10 percent of the normal weight for their height and sex. Remember, however, that fad diets create worse imbalances. It is thought that moderate exercise also reduces the risk of coronary heart disease. Dean C. Fletcher, Director, Section on Food Science, American Medical Association, and his wife, Ann.