Heart-Healthy Fats

By Carolyn Suerth Hudson, RDN, LD
February 7, 2018

Are you still confused about which fats help keep your heart healthy? You are not alone! For many years we have been told to avoid fats, especially saturated animal fats because these fats cause heart disease.  Instead of saturated fats, we were told to use vegetable oils and margarine.  Let’s explore the truth about good fats and bad fats for cardiovascular health.

What Fats Should You Avoid for Heart Health?

Bad fats are highly processed and include canola or rapeseed oil, soybean oil, corn oil and cottonseed oil. These oils are made using intensive mechanical and chemical processes to get the oil from the seeds.  First the seed is crushed and heated; then a hexane solvent is added to get more oil out. Then the oil needs to be degummed, neutralized, bleached and deodorized.  Refined oils remove all the natural nutrients, and they oxidize easily.  This causes your cells and blood vessels to get stiff and damaged.  

Often these bad fats are also hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated like margarine or shortening. This means they contain trans-fats.  Trans-fats increase your bad cholesterol (LDL) and lower your good cholesterol ( HDL).  As little as 2% consumption of trans-fats doubles your risk of heart disease (1). Trans-fat consumption causes inflammation in the blood vessels. Inflammation can be the root cause of coronary artery disease. Be on the lookout, trans-fats are still everywhere, even if it says 0 trans-fats on the label. Most commonly they are found in crackers, cake mixes, baked goods, packaged foods, chips, fast food, non-dairy creamers, pastries and bar food.

What are Good Fats for Heart Health?

5-things-you-will-learn-in-N4WL_fats.jpgGood fats are those that exist in nature.  They are not highly processed. These include olive oil, coconut oil, lard, butter, full-fat dairy, nuts, seeds, nut butters, avocado, olives, as well as the fats in eggs  and cold-water fatty fish.  Good fats are very stable.  According to Sally Fallon Morell in her book Nourishing Fats Why We Need Animal Fats for Health and Happiness (2), one of the most important reasons we should be eating these natural fats is that they provide important vitamins like vitamin K, which helps protect our arteries and heart.   Another good reason to be eating healthy fats is that you absorb more nutrients from your food when you add a good fat. The fat helps carry nutrients from your vegetables into your cells. So, go ahead and add yummy butter to your broccoli.

How can you tell if it is a good fat? When you are at the store look for dark bottles and words like unrefined, extra virgin, expeller pressed, cold pressed, and first pressed. We recommend eating fat every time you eat.  How much? Examples include 16 almonds, ½ avocado, 2 teaspoons butter or olive oil, 10 walnuts, 6 olives, 2 tablespoons cream, 2 tablespoons full fat sour cream or cream cheese, or 1 -2 tablespoons nut butter.

Are Eggs Healthy?

CholesterolGuidelines_Eggs.jpgWhat about eggs? Are they good for you or bad? In 2013 new cholesterol guidelines (3) were released, and in 2015 the Dietary Guidelines stated “available evidence shows no appreciable relationship between consumption of dietary cholesterol and [blood] cholesterol ... Cholesterol is not a nutrient of concern for overconsumption." (4) For many years eggs got a bad rap because there were believed to raise your cholesterol. The truth is our body makes 75 percent of our cholesterol and food contributes only 25 percent. So, enjoy eggs anytime!  

How to Tell a Good Fat from a Bad Fat

Now that we know the what and the why of bad fats, how do we distinguish a bad fat from a good fat?  A bad fat will often be in a clear container, and you will be able to see through it.   Avoid the words hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils listed in the ingredients.  This means there are trans-fats present. 

In summary, good fats that appear in nature are very stable and are good for your heart. Bad fats are processed, highly refined and bad for your heart. Unfortunately, bad fats are easy to find and appear in almost all of our processed foods. Eating unrefined or naturally processed oils and whole foods is heart healthy. I hope this article clears up any confusion you may have about good and bad fats.


(1) Hu FB, Stampfer MJ, Manson JE, Rimm E, Coldtiz GA, Rosner BA, et al. Dietary fat intake and the risk of coronary heart disease in women. N Engl J Med. 1997;337(21):1491–1499.

(2) Fallon, Sally. Nourishing fats: why we need animal fats for health and happiness. 1st ed. New York: Grand Central Life & Style, 2017.

(3) Stone NJ, Robinson JG, Lichtenstein AH, et al. 2013 ACC/AHA guideline on the treatment of blood cholesterol to reduce atherosclerotic cardiovascular risk in adults: a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines. J Am Coll Cardiol 2014;63:2889-934.

(4) U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. Part D. Chapter 1. Question 2.


About the author

Carolyn is a licensed dietitian at Nutritionl Weight & Wellness. Carolyn understands the impact nutrition has on health and well-being both professionally and personally. Working in a remote town in northern Canada, she saw the impact poor nutrition had on the health of people there. She then became committed to learning more and decided to pursue a degree in nutrition. Carolyn is a registered and licensed dietitian through the Minnesota Board of Nutrition and Dietetics. She received her BASc in Nutrition from Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and completed her internship at Toronto General Hospital. Carolyn is a past president of the Minnesota Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and past director on the board of the Dietitians of Canada.

View all posts by Carolyn Suerth Hudson, RDN, LD


diane horak
what about safflower oil? From the description above, it sounds like a bad fat. Thank you.
February 13, 2018 at 4:20 pm


Safflower oil can be good, when you are at the store look for dark bottles and words like unrefined, extra virgin, expeller pressed, cold pressed, and first pressed.

Suzanne Hoffman
I am curious why you, as a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, are citing a book written by an individual without any credentials in nutrition as your reference? Does she have citations in her book on research that has been done on animal fats?
November 21, 2019 at 2:00 pm


The Nourishing Fats book includes 707 citations, the vast majority of which are primary research articles and textbooks, so the information presented in this book was extensively researched. As with most evidence-based books, there is often a supporting cast of co-authors, a research team, and/or academic contributors to the research and writing process. The book’s Acknowledgements page identifies several Ph.D. contributors and researchers for this work.

Ann Sewich
amazing info! What about the saturated fat in beef and pork?
December 18, 2019 at 3:15 pm


We recommend eating grass fed, grass finished animal proteins. The saturated fats in these animals are clean and are considered healthy fats.

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