February is heart health month, and with heart disease reigning as the #1 killer in America, it’s essential to keep your heart pumping well.
Many people claim that food is the way to their heart. The question is: what is the best diet for heart health?
For decades, most experts have recommended a relatively low-fat diet to prevent heart disease. Given that heart disease still runs rampant in our country and is becoming common all over the world, I’m not sure the low-fat diet is working out for us all. For further proof, this large study showed that a low-fat diet did not reduce the risk of heart disease or stroke. Low fat typically means high-carb (or high sugar!).
The problems are:
- Fat is not created equal. Fat does not come in one form – there are omega 3 fats, saturated fats, unsaturated fats, trans fats… They all act differently in the body.
- Low-fat foods are often junk. Food companies ran with the low-fat fad and created low-fat everything. What happens when you remove the rich, tasty part of a food, though? You have to replace it with something else – just throw in a ton of sugar!
- Our body (including our heart) loves fat! You cannot live on a fat-free diet. Fat is part of every cell in your body, making up cell membranes. It also transports fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, & K) into your body. Your brain alone is about 70% fat!
The media loves to praise the Mediterranean diet as the diet to follow for heart-health because Mediterranean communities have typically had low rates of heart disease. The Mediterranean diet is comprised of about 40% or more calories from fat, which is much higher than the recommended 30%, and there’s plenty of research linking a higher-fat diet (vs a low-fat diet), such as the Mediterranean diet, with better heart health and overall health. The fats they choose are also very healthy for the heart – lots of omega 3s from fish, olive oil, olives, avocados, etc. – and likely little to no trans fats or vegetable oils.
If you take away one thing from this post: Don’t fear fat!
There’s no need to cut back on the fat in your diet. If anything, try to cut back on sugar and add some fats into your diet. Follow this guide to choose the right fats.
1.) Increase omega 3 fats.
Omega 3 fats are anti-inflammatory and great for heart health. Processed foods can create a state of inflammation in your body, and just like if you have a cut or wound, it requires healing. If your body is constantly fighting off inflammation, it won’t be able to heal itself, and it can lead to chronic diseases, such as heart disease. Omega 3 fats help decrease that inflammation. In order to increase the omega 3s in your diet, eat fatty fish, such as salmon, sardines, or mackarel, at least 2 times per week. Pasture raised or grass-fed meats also contain omega 3 fatty acids.
2.) Decrease omega 6 fats.
Omega 6s are the dominant fats in the American diet, and in high amounts, they are pro-inflammatory fats. They show up as corn oil, soybean oil, and other vegetable oils found in processed foods and salad dressings. Both omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids are essential, but a high ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 sets the stage for inflammation and chronic disease. One new analysis found that replacing animal fats with vegetable oils (corn oil, safflower oil, etc.) increased heart disease risk. Instead, you want to balance out the ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 by avoiding vegetable oils, such as canola, soybean, corn oil, etc., which are found in processed foods, salad dressings, and often used for cooking, especially at fast food restaurants. They are easily damaged with heat and become a part of your cells – leading to dysfunctional cells. Go ahead – choose butter over margarine!
3.) Avoid trans fats at all costs.
These are the bad guys when it comes to heart health. These processed, hydrogenated oils increase small, dense LDL particles (bad cholesterol), decrease healthy HDL particles, and increase your risk of having a heart attack. Skip the processed cookies, cakes, baked goods, and fried foods to avoid trans fats!
4.) Don’t worry about saturated fat.
Saturated fat is demonized, but the research surrounding it is weak. In fact, a meta-analysis in 2010 found that saturated fat is NOT associated with coronary heart disease. In fact, I’ve written about the health benefits of certain saturated fats, such as coconut oil and butter.
5.) Choose monounsaturated fats.
Avocados, olives, and nuts are rich in these heart-healthy fats, and research has linked them with a decreased risk of heart disease and stroke. These fats can be damaged with heat, so use olive oil as a salad dressing rather than cooking with it. These fats are delicious and creamy – throw some guacamole on your salad for a change!
6.) Choose high-quality fats.
Just like anything, it’s best to choose a variety of fats throughout your week. Choose a variety of proteins – fish, red meat, poultry, etc. – to get a balance of fats and nutrients. Choose the highest quality fats you can in order to limit the omega 6s and inflammation in your body. You can do this by choosing grass-fed or pasture-raised animal proteins and fats or wild seafood. Use solid and stable fats for cooking, such as butter or coconut oil, and use olive oil (avoid other vegetable oils!) for salad dressings. Include fats in meals for satiety and flavor, but remember to use them in moderation!
It’s time to throw out the low-fat dogma, and accept that fat is an essential and healthy part of meals! Support your heart with high-quality fats (omega 3, saturated, and monounsaturated fats), limit polyunsaturated fats in vegetable oils and omega 6 fats, and avoid trans fats. If you want to read more about heart health and nutrition, this set of posts is great!
What’s your favorite way to add fats to your diet?
My favorite way to get in high-quality fats is a spinach salad topped with salmon, avocado, and an olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing.