Heart-Healthy Fats (and Recipes, too!)
By Britni Vincent, RD, LD
February 16, 2021
The truth finally comes out: fats are good for you! But old myths tend to linger, leaving many asking “If I eat more fat, won’t my cholesterol go up? And isn’t too much cholesterol bad for my heart?” For years we have been told that heart disease is caused by fat consumption – specifically foods containing cholesterol and saturated fat –but research of the past decade is telling us the opposite …that fats actually IMPROVE heart health. The French are a great example of this. They consume a lot of butter, raw cheese and organ meats and have half the rate of heart disease that Americans do.
Contrary to the low-fat message spread for years, healthy fats should be consumed at every meal and snack throughout the day.. And there are several wonderful, real fats that are heart-healthy to choose from. Are you eating them? Plus, do you know how to shop properly for these fats? Let me break it down for you.
Look for These Heart-Healthy Fats
- Eggs (yolks, too): You don’t have to worry about eating eggs on a regular basis, and please ditch the liquid egg white products. They only contain the egg whites and have many other additives. Dietary cholesterol from eggs does not have a significant effect on raising your body’s cholesterol level. Egg yolks contain 13 important nutrients, plus they are delicious. Look for “organic” and “free–range” eggs. They are the best option because they contain the most nutrients.
- Meat: Gone are the days of only eating dried out chicken breast to be healthy. Chicken thighs, ground beef, steak are delicious cuts of meat that give you the protein you need for a healthy heart and body. Look for “100% grass-fed,” “free-range,” and “organic” to find the healthiest options.
- Fish: Fatty fish, such as sardines, salmon and mackerel, are the best source of omega-3s. A review of omega-3s and cardiovascular disease from the Harvard School of Public Health, concluded that omega-3 consumption “lowers plasma triglycerides, resting heart rate, and blood pressure and might also improve myocardial filling and efficiency, lower inflammation and improve vascular function.” Omega-3s are amazing molecules and have many other benefits other than heart health. When shopping for fish, purchase “wild-caught” fish. Most canned salmon is wild-caught and can be an economical way to get your delicious salmon and healthy omega-3s. If it doesn’t say "wild-caught" on the label that means it’s farm-raised, meaning pumped with antibiotics and hormones, which are then stored in our bodies after we consume the fish. As a result of their poor living conditions, farm-raised fish lose a lot of their nutrient value and many contain additives as well. For one example, to make the grayish-white farmed salmon color more appealing, artificial colors are added to give the fish its “salmon” pink color.
- Butter and cream: Choose organic brands and look for “grass-fed.”
- Coconut oil: Look for “cold-pressed” and organic brands. Here’s a great in-depth post about exactly what to shop for in coconut oil.
- Olive oil and olives: Olives contain polyphenols, which are anti-inflammatory and also act as powerful antioxidants. Look for “extra virgin,” “cold-pressed” or “first-pressed,” which means it’s the least processed and contains the most nutrients. After that just choose whatever kind you like best!
- Nuts: Arginine is an amino acid found in nuts that protects the inner lining of the arterial walls (endothelium), making the arterial walls less susceptible to plaque build-up. Nuts are also plentiful in phytonutrients, which have powerful health benefits and have been linked to the prevention of coronary artery disease. Each nut has different nutrients to offer so choose a variety, but make sure they are raw or dry roasted so they don’t contain damaged oils.
- Avocado: Excellent source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and contain close to 20 health boosting nutrients. Research also suggests they can lower cholesterol levels.
What about cholesterol?
Dietary cholesterol doesn’t have much impact on our blood cholesterol. I wanted to bold that so it’s loud and clear. Even so, some clients are still concerned about their cholesterol after I tell them to include more eggs in their diet. Only 25% of the cholesterol our body has each day comes from diet; the remaining 75% is made in our bodies by our liver. I have seen it countless times that when people start to consume more eggs and other healthy fats, their cholesterol either doesn’t change or actually improves.
Dr. Aseem Malhotra, an interventional cardiology specialist at Croydon University Hospital in London, said “the avoidance of saturated fat actually promotes poor health in a number of ways, compounding the health risks of following this completely outdated and dangerous advice.” According to Dr. Bowden and Dr. Sinatra, authors of The Great Cholesterol Myth, saturated fat raises (“good”) HDL cholesterol and tends to make a beneficial change to the pattern of your (“bad”) LDL cholesterol.
Avoid These Fats
Yes, fats can negatively affect your heart health, but only the bad fats. Here’s what I mean by bad fats.
- Trans fats: New products no longer contain trans-fats, but older products from before the June 2018 ban are likely still lurking on some fridge or pantry shelves. These damaging fats are found in margarine, non-dairy creamers, cake mixes, soup cups, most packaged baked goods, chips, and fast food. You can identify trans fats in the ingredient list by looking for “partially hydrogenated oil” or “hydrogenated oil.” Toss any expired products and any products containing trans-fats; we don’t recommend consuming anything with trans-fats. Trans fats were found to increase your (“bad”) LDL cholesterol and decrease your (“good”) HDL cholesterol. As a result, the FDA banned their use, but it’s best to still beware of lingering products.
- Refined oils (corn, canola, soybean and cottonseed oil): Historically, vegetable oils, such as canola oil, have been promoted as being “heart healthy” but that’s simply not true. Again recent research has found these kinds of fats to be inflammatory by nature, but the processing makes them even worse. Think about what happens when you squeeze a kernel of corn or a soybean …oil doesn’t actually come out. The oils are extracted and refined using very high heat and petroleum solvents, like hexane. Then it goes through another process of refining, degumming, bleaching, and even deodorization (because they stink). Researchers from “Dietary Fats, Carbohydrate, and the Progression of Coronary Atherosclerosis in Post-menopausal Women” found that when they replaced saturated fat (like butter or coconut oil) with polyunsaturated fats (vegetable oils described above) it led to an increase in the progression of coronary atherosclerosis, or plaque build-up. These kinds of fats are found in many packaged foods, even roasted nuts, so always read the ingredient list!
Heart-Healthy Recipes & Next Steps
Incorporating salmon into your diet is a great way to increase your heart-healthy fat intake. Here are two delicious and EASY recipes for you to try:
If you’re struggling with cholesterol or other heart health issues, I’d highly encourage you to sign up for a virtual nutrition consultation with me or one of my fellow nutritionists and dietitians here at Nutritional Weight & Wellness. We’ve helped hundreds of people get their cholesterol and heart health under control, Jim and Mary Lou are great examples of that!