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Beyond Cholesterol: Saturated Fat and Trans Fat

What's a food shopper to do? Even though cholesterol isn't the chief villain, it's still worth glancing at how much a packaged food contains. The official advice from the American Heart Association and other groups is to limit your total daily intake to less than 300 milligrams.

But while checking cholesterol numbers, also take a look at the saturated fat, which has a much bigger impact on raising cholesterol levels. Most nutritionists say a healthy diet should get no more than 7% of calories from saturated fat.  

Trans fats may be even more dangerous because they raise LDL, or "bad" cholesterol levels and lower HDL, the "good cholesterol" at the same time.

Fortunately, trans fats, which are found in partially hydrogenated oils, are being phased out of many packaged foods, so they pose less of a danger. Still, if you eat a lot of processed foods, you may still be consuming more than you should.

Foods can call themselves "trans-free" as long as they contain less than half a gram of trans fats per serving. To find out whether a food has trans fats, check the ingredient label for partially hydrogenated oils.

Lowering Cholesterol With Weight Loss

If you could stand to lose a few pounds, probably the most important number to check on the label is calories per serving.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Surrey in England showed that when volunteers cut back on calories, it didn't matter how much dietary cholesterol they consumed. Even when their diets contained up to 582 milligrams of cholesterol a day -- far over the recommended amount -- their blood cholesterol levels remained unchanged as long as they cut back on calories and lost weight.

"Cholesterol in packaged foods really isn't a big issue," says McManus. "Three much more important  numbers on the nutrition facts panel are serving size, calories per serving, and the type of fats," says McManus. "If you keep track of those, you don't have to worry about how much cholesterol a packaged food contains."