A Quick Guide to Heart-Smart Fats

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February brings to mind hearts, love, and, ok, chocolate. But keeping your ticker ticking along warrants attention year-round. One of the main ways you can support your cardiovascular health is by eating heart-smart. And that means paying attention to the types of fats you’re eating. We’ve come a long way since the low-fat craze of the 1980s and 90s. We now know that we need fat in our diets. They make us feel satiated, provide energy, and help produce hormones, among many other functions. But not all fats are considered heart-healthy. 

What makes a fat healthy for your heart

Nearly all the fats and oils in our food are comprised of a mixture of four main types of fats:

  • Monounsaturated fats
  • Polyunsaturated fats
  • Saturated fats
  • Trans fats

A good rule of thumb to remember for selecting foods that contain fat or for choosing a fat or oil to cook with: the more unsaturated the fat is, the more heart-healthy it is. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are considered healthier for your heart because they improve blood cholesterol levels and decrease inflammation. Conversely, the more saturated a fat is, the more likely it is to increase inflammation and negatively impact blood cholesterol levels. (However, it’s not clear that all saturated fats and fatty acids increase the risk of cardiovascular diseaseFor more on this, see a previous post I wrote.

Saturated and trans fats are often lumped together as “bad fats.” But trans fats take the prize for being the worst kind of fat for your heart. In fact, for each 2% of calories consumed daily from trans fats, the risk of coronary disease increases by 23%! Trans fats can be difficult to avoid completely—for example, trace amounts are naturally present in milk products and meat. Thankfully, however, U.S. food manufacturers are no longer allowed to use trans fats as an ingredient. 

Saturated vs. unsaturated fats

Not sure if the fat or oil you are using is mostly saturated or mostly unsaturated? Here are a few general rules. If it’s solid at room temperature, it’s mostly saturated. If it’s liquid at room temperature, it’s likely unsaturated. And if the fat comes from meat or dairy products, it’s saturated. There is a notable exception, however. Tropical oils like coconut and palm are highly saturated despite being plant-based and sometimes liquid at room temperature.

As for trans fats, they’re not as easy to spot—as I said above, they’re banned in U.S. food manufacturing. But besides their natural presence in meat and dairy products, trans fats are still in some packaged foods. If there’s less than 0.5 grams of trans fats per serving, manufacturers can label their products as trans-fat-free. This is often the case with foods that contain butter or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Deep-fried foods, including baked goods, processed snacks, and fried fish, chicken, and potatoes, can also contain these dangerous fats. 

To improve your heart health, do a fat swap

So what’s the best way to make your diet more heart-healthy? Simply eating more fat—even if it’s heart-healthy—isn’t recommended. Instead, research indicates that you should replace saturated fats with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats as much as possible. This means cooking and baking with more oils and less butter, coconut, or palm oil. And do swap out some of the meat you eat for seafood (twice a week is recommended). Eating some plant-based proteins instead of animal-based ones will also lower your saturated fat intake. 

Which foods have heart-healthy fats?

The heart-healthy unsaturated fats—both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated—can be found in a variety of foods. 

Monounsaturated fats are found in high amounts in certain plants and plant oils. Monounsaturated fatty acids are heart-healthy because they positively impact blood cholesterol levels and can also improve blood sugar regulation. 

Find monounsaturated fats in:

  • Oils: olive, avocado, canola, peanut, and sesame
  • Nuts and seeds: peanuts, almonds, macadamia, hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts, cashews, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and sunflower seeds (as well as nut butters/spreads made from them)
  • Olives
  • Avocados

There are two kinds of polyunsaturated fats: omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. These are essential fatty acids, which means that your body doesn’t make them. You need to get them from your diet (or supplements). 

Find omega-3s in:

  • Fish and seafood: especially cold-water fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, anchovies, and sardines
  • Nuts and seeds: flaxseed, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and walnuts 
  • Oils: flaxseed, soybean, and canola
  • Fortified foods: some eggs, yogurts, milks, soy beverages, and juices 

It’s not hard to get omega-6 fatty acids because they are present in widely used vegetable oils. 

Find omega-6s in:

  • Oils: canola, safflower, avocado, sunflower, soybean, and corn 
  • Eggs
  • Tofu
  • Nuts and seeds: walnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, cashews, peanuts, and sunflower seeds (as well as nut butters/spreads made from them)

Follow the Guiding Stars to heart-healthy foods

Using Guiding Stars is a quick and easy way to select foods that are better for you and your heart. The science behind Guiding Stars rewards products for having omega-3 fats and debits those with higher saturated fats. We use a unique algorithm to evaluate fats and oils, which includes oil-based foods like salad dressing and mayonnaise. Fats have inherent nutritional differences from other food components, so they need to be evaluated in an appropriate way. The Fats & Oils algorithm gives points for the presence of monounsaturated fatty acids and omega-3s. And it debits points for saturated and trans fats, as well as added sodium, sugars, and additives to limit.