Eating fat can be heart-healthy if you pick the right kind. Too many of us cut fat willy-nilly and replace it with refined carbs, so we miss out on the benefits of healthy fats, says Suzanne Rostler, a registered dietitian and nutritionist in Framingham, Mass. What’s more, eating lots of refined carbs—like white bread and white rice—can increase triglyceride levels, which can contribute to heart and blood vessel disease.
Packed with protein, crammed with calcium, and popping with probiotics, yogurt has all the makings of one of the best foods you can eat for weight loss and general health. Just make sure you go Greek. Whole-milk, Greek yogurts tend to have more protein and fat and less sugar than their leaner versions, which makes for the perfect hunger-squashing team: protein takes longer to break down and fat makes you feel satisfied, so you’ll fly through your morning without an urge to snack.
Most people have been trained to choose low-fat foods over high-fat foods. Fat has always been positioned as a dietary enemy, so it’s no wonder it can get totally confusing when doctors and dietitians sing the praises of what they call healthy fats. You probably know that avocado is one of them, and that this nutrition revelation is responsible for their rise from guac staple to Instagram stardom in recent years. And of course there’s olive oil, the lynchpin of the Mediterranean Diet. But there are plenty more healthy, high-fat foods you should definitely be working into your meals and snacks on a regular basis. Here’s what you ought to know.
SOURCES: WebMD Weight Loss Clinic Expert Column:"The Skinny on Fats." WebMD Weight Loss Clinic Feature: "Trans Fat Free Food: What's the Truth?" Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, Gershoff Professor of Nutrition Science and Policy, director and senior scientist, Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory, Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, Tufts University. Robert Eckel, MD, past president, American Heart Association. Michael Jacobson, PhD, executive director, Center for Science in the Public Interest. Colleen Doyle, MS, RD, nutrition and physical activity director, American Cancer Society.
Trans fat. Small amounts of naturally occurring trans fats can be found in meat and dairy products but it’s artificial trans fats that are considered dangerous. This is the worst type of fat since it not only raises bad LDL cholesterol but also lowers good HDL levels. Artificial trans fats can also create inflammation, which is linked to heart disease, stroke, and other chronic conditions and contributes to insulin resistance, which increases your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.
We used to think that “fat” was a dirty word. But in fact, there are many healthy fats that can reduce high cholesterol, promote good cholesterol, and be a part of a heart-healthy diet. The secret is to focus on the right fats. “Good fats are monounsaturated fats such as olive oil, canola oil, nuts, and avocados, and there are also the polyunsaturated fats found in omega-3 fish, flaxseed, walnuts, and pumpkin seeds,” says Barbara Mendez, MS, RPh, a pharmacist and nutritional consultant in New York City. “These fats help reduce total cholesterol while raising the ‘good’ high-density lipoprotein, or HDL, cholesterol. This protects the heart from heart disease and also helps reduce total body inflammation. Additionally, these fats nourish healthy hair, skin, nails, and bones.”
Tuna also packs a high amount of healthy fats and omega-3s. We're talking both the conveniently canned stuff and the kind you find at your favorite sushi spot. It's versatile—tuna steaks, tuna burgers, tuna salad, the options are endless—so it's pretty easy to fit into your diet. Like salmon, you should limit your intake to about 12 ounces (two meals) a week to avoid overexposure to things like mercury that can be found in small amounts in seafood.
Certain types of fat also possess anti-inflammatory properties, which can help protect against chronic disease and help improve health. Omega-3 fatty acids, for example, have been shown to relieve inflammation and reduce symptoms of autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and Crohn’s disease. (35) Monounsaturated fatty acids, on the other hand, may help increase good HDL cholesterol, lower triglyceride levels and decrease the risk of heart disease. (36)
Cheese is an excellent source of protein, calcium, vitamins, minerals and fatty acids, and it helps slow down the absorption of sugar and carbohydrates, leading to consistent energy levels and improved brain function. It may also help lower your risk of diabetes: people who eat a lot of high-fat dairy products actually have the lowest incidence of diabetes, according to a 2015 study of 26,930 people in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Those who ate a lot of low-fat dairy products had the highest incidence. The researchers speculated that while calcium, protein, vitamin D and other nutrients in cheese are indeed good for us, we need the fat that goes along with them in order to get their protective effects. Just make sure it’s real, full-fat cheese and not wood chips.
Fatty, oily fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, healthy fats that have been shown to reduce the risk for heart disease and high cholesterol. “Salmon, tuna, trout, and Atlantic or Pacific mackerel are great sources of omega-3 fatty acids,” says Darlene Zimmerman, RD, a dietitian at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. Grilled, baked, or broiled, include fish in your heart-healthy diet at least twice a week for a total of 8 ounces, she suggests. Try this great recipe for grilled rosemary salmon.
All fats and oils contain fatty acids. You may be most familiar with Omega 3 fatty acids, found in fish oil. When you eat healthy fats and oils, the digestion process enables the fatty acids to be absorbed into the blood. Fatty acids are a component of fats and oils that become the building blocks of your body, helping to create cells membranes and nerve sheathing among other body functions.
Food manufacturers flooded the market with processed foods containing hydrogenated fats and processed sugar. The replacement of saturated fats in the diet with trans fats and sugar resulted in epidemic rates of obesity and its related health complications (2). Rates of diabetes, heart disease and cancer have risen since Americans adopted the low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet.
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This blue-green alga, available in powders and supplements, is full of healthy omega-3s like EPA and DHA. Research shows that these forms of omega-3s are more active in the body than ALA at controlling inflammation and belly fat. Not only is spirulina a great source of heart-healthy fats, but it’s also super-rich in protein, a great source of probiotics, and may even be able to help flatten your belly during exercise.
Cutting back on saturated fat will likely have no benefit, however, if people replace saturated fat with refined carbohydrates. Eating refined carbohydrates in place of saturated fat does lower “bad” LDL cholesterol, but it also lowers the “good” HDL cholesterol and increases triglycerides. The net effect is as bad for the heart as eating too much saturated fat.
Additionally, a higher consumption of eggs can reduce your risk of metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions including factors like excess body fat, high blood sugar levels and abnormal cholesterol levels. Having any of these conditions makes you more likely to suffer from heart disease, stroke or type 2 diabetes. A 2016 study found that adults over 40 years old who regularly ate eggs significantly reduced their risk of metabolic syndrome. (10)
According to Ayurveda, fats are used to promote healthy skin, support satiety and calm the nerves. On an Ayurvedic diet, it’s generally recommended to steer clear of trans fats and include plenty of vegetable-based fats and omega-3 fatty acids. Saturated fat is also encouraged in moderation by increasing your intake of foods like ghee, coconut oil and grass-fed beef.
The type of fat with no redeeming nutritional value is trans fat, which is created when food manufacturers artificially convert unsaturated fatty acids into solid, saturated fats. Trans fats have the worst effect on your cholesterol levels, because they actually lower the good HDL cholesterol and increase the harmful LDL cholesterol. They're also highly inflammatory, which may contribute to chronic diseases, and they contribute to insulin resistance, which drives diabetes development.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that is found only in animal foods. Unlike fatty acids, it doesn’t provide energy. However, your body needs it in order to produce steroid hormones, vitamin D, and bile acids that help digest fat. All of your cells make cholesterol; in fact, most of the cholesterol in your blood comes from your body rather than the food you eat. Dietary cholesterol does not raise blood cholesterol levels much, if at all, nor does it increase heart disease risk.
For decades, doctors, nutritionists, and health authorities have told us that a diet high in saturated fats raises blood cholesterol and increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. However, recent studies have made headlines by casting doubt on those claims, concluding that people who eat lots of saturated fat do not experience more cardiovascular disease than those who eat less.
Unfortunately, buying this healthy fat isn’t as easy as just grabbing the first bottle you see. Make sure to pick only extra virgin varieties of the oil, which means no chemicals are involved when the oil is refined. Unfortunately, many common brands have been shown to fail the standards for extra virgin olive oils, meaning it’s important to choose wisely.