Healthy Fats for a Healthy Heart

Heart disease remains the number one killer in the United States and heart disease not breast cancer is the number one killer in women. For many years, we believed fat to be the main culprit in heart disease. While our blood levels of fat in the form of cholesterol are measured regularly to determine our risk for heart disease, fat is not something we should avoid. In fact, we now know that eating healthy fats is the key to a healthy heart. 

So what are the effects of various forms of fat on our heart health? Let’s look at the major types of fat and their impact on cholesterol. We have monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat and saturated fat. Rich sources of monounsaturated fat include avocados, almonds, and extra virgin olive oil. Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) increase our HDL (good cholesterol), decrease our Triglycerides (bad cholesterol) and our LDL (really bad cholesterol). So eating more MUFAs are good for our hearts. 

Polyunsaturated fat (PUFAs) has various forms including omega 3, 6, and 9 as most common types. Our diet is pretty high in both omega 6 and 9 polyunsaturated fat which is found in vegetable oils. However, we do not have enough omega 3 PUFAs which is found in fish oil from wild cold water fish (like salmon or mackeral) or plant sources like walnuts or flaxseeds. Omega 3s are really the powerhouse of PUFAs and these are powerful anti-inflammatory fats that reduce chronic inflammation and contribute to heart health in a number of ways. PUFAs increase our HDL (good cholesterol), and decrease our Triglycerides (particularly omega 3 fish oil, bad cholesterol) and slightly decrease our LDL (very bad cholesterol).

Then we have saturated fats that can come from plant sources like coconuts or animal sources like meats or dairy products. Saturated fat is a controversial fat because while it does significantly increase our HDL (good cholesterol) it also increases our LDL (very bad cholesterol). More recent meta-analysis review data show saturated fat may not play a major role as originally thought for heart disease and instead excess refined sugar which raises our Triglyceride levels may play an even more critical role, especially in the U.S. where we consume way too much refined sugar which leads to obesity, diabetes and heart disease. So healthy fats like MUFAs, PUFAs (especially omega 3s think walnuts, flaxseed and fish oil) are great and some saturated may not be all that bad.

Dr. Shad

Dr. Shad (Farshad Fani Marvasti, MD, MPH) is a Stanford-trained medical doctor, associate professor in academic medicine, speaker, and author with expertise in nutrition and culinary medicine, wellness, public health and prevention.

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