The Best And Worst Fats For Heart Health

Confused about which fats you should consume, and how much? Here’s the lowdown on the heart-healthiest options.

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For years, experts touted a low-fat diet as the key to reducing the risk of heart disease, but we now know that was misguided. The key is choosing healthier varieties of fats — such as the ones found in nuts and olive oil — and using them to curb your appetite, and crowd out calories from refined carbohydrates.  We talked to the experts to find out how much fat you should be eating, which types are best, and how to use them.

Good: Monounsaturated fats

Found in: Olive, canola, peanut and sesame oils; avocados, almonds, and non-hydrogenated tub margarines.

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Monounsaturated fat improves cholesterol levels, and may play a role in blood sugar control as well. Extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) has even greater benefits than the regular variety, says Rosie Schwartz, a Toronto dietitian and author of The Enlightened Eater’s Whole Foods Guide — not only is it richer in cholesterol-lowering compounds called polyphenols, it contains a substance that helps prevent blood clots in much the same way as Aspirin.

How to use: When it comes to oil, olive, canola and peanut are good all-purpose options. And while EVOO is a delicious alternative to butter on bread, as well as a tasty base for dressings, you can fry with it, too. “The smoke point is higher than people think,” says Schwartz, “and in fact, in the Mediterranean, that’s what they use.” EVOO and sesame oil (which you can sprinkle on vegetables, or add to stir fry sauces) should both be stored in a cool, dark cupboard.

And here’s a trick if you’re shopping for tub margarine: Find the nutrition facts table, and add up the numbers for the ‘un’ fats (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated): if the answer is six or more, it’s heart-healthy.

Good: Polyunsaturated fats

Found in: Fatty fish, canola, safflower, sunflower, and flax-seed oils.

Polyunsaturated fats lower levels of damaging LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, and one type — omega 3s — may also help prevent the formation of stroke- and heart-attack-causing blood clots. The main polyunsaturated fat in vegetable oils, however, is a type called omega-6. (All oils are a mixture of different fats — including saturated — in varying proportions.) It may be a good idea to choose oils that contain only moderate amounts of omega-6, since some evidence suggests too much omega-6 may promote the simmering inflammation that’s linked with an increased risk of heart disease. Oils with a higher percentage of omega-6 include corn, cottonseed and soybean (all commonly used in prepared and packaged foods), while plant sources of omega-3 include flaxseed, canola, walnuts, pecans and pine nuts.

How to use: Canola, safflower and sunflower are all good options for baking, roasting, sautéing, and frying, though canola is the best when it comes to fat profile. (Mind you, no matter which fat you use, fried foods should only make up a very small part of your diet.) Drizzle walnut or flaxseed oil (which need to be stored in the fridge) onto salads or into yogurt or cereal to add a nutty flavour.

Bad: Saturated Fats

Found in: Meat, dairy products, palm and coconut oils, and hard margarines.

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This type of fat raises LDL cholesterol, so it’s a good idea to eat it sparingly, but that doesn’t mean you need to cut out certain types of food entirely. For example, if you can’t bear to give up butter, “maybe you want to cut down on red meat, or choose lower-fat dairy products,” suggests Carol Dombrow, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant for the Heart and Stroke Foundation. What else you’re eating is also important, stresses Schwartz — for example, the saturated fat in tropical oils such as palm and coconut may be less of a concern for vegetarians.

Worst: Trans Fats

Found in: Commercially baked and fried foods, many packaged foods, lard, and shortening.

When it comes to fats and heart disease risk, “trans fats are certainly the worst,” says Dombrow. Gram for gram, these fats are five times more harmful than saturated fats, driving up blood levels of unhealthy LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, and lowering ‘healthy’ HDL. The good news? Plans are under way to ban them in Canada beginning in September 2018.

How much (good) fat should you consume?

“It depends on the individual,” says Schwartz. “Moderation is really important — eating foods swimming in oil is still not a good idea, but 35 to 40 percent of total calories is likely fine, with a maximum of 10 percent from saturated fats.” For a woman who needs 1,500 calories per day, that translates to roughly 4.5 to 5.5 tablespoons — but remember, that’s from all sources, including foods such as nuts, peanut butter, dairy products and avocados.