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Fats and Heart Health

August 7, 2020
Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen

For years, there’s been an ongoing debate over which fatty foods are good and bad for your heart and overall health. Today, it’s known that some fats are beneficial and some should be avoided. But in the 1990s, the common wisdom was that “all fats are bad for you.” People started associating the word “fat” with “weight gain,” so food companies immediately capitalized on their ignorance and began to release low-fat products.


But it turns out that there are many different kinds of fats, some of which are actually good for you. When people started buying exclusively low-fat foods, they no longer had “good” fats in their diet, which meant they weren’t actually eating as healthily as they thought they were. In addition, many low-fat products contain staggering amounts of sugar to compensate which, unlike most fats, does cause weight gain.


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Heart Disease: Effects of Sugar

Heart Disease: Effects of Sugar

So does that mean all fats are healthy? Not necessarily. Some fats will cause you to gain weight, increase your cholesterol levels, and increase your risk for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. Let’s take a look at which fats you should and shouldn’t be eating.


Trans Fats


Trans fats are the worst kinds of fats. They are created by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil in a solidification process. In the United States, the FDA recognized trans fats as “not safe for human consumption” in 2015 and completely outlawed them in 2018. Many other countries have banned them as well.


According to the American Heart Association, trans fats raise your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower your good (HDL) cholesterol levels. They also increase your risk for diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. There is no benefit whatsoever to eating trans fats, and you should avoid all food containing them.


Saturated Fats


Sources of saturated fats include red meat, whole milk, cheese, and tropical oils such as coconut oil. Saturated fat is not necessarily bad for you, but a diet rich in it can raise your cholesterol. The science isn’t quite clear on if saturated fat is harmful or not, but it may raise your risk for heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends that one should get only 5-6% of their daily calories from saturated fat, which means you should keep your intake to a minimum if you’re concerned about your health.


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Mediterranean Diet

Mediterranean Diet

Monounsaturated Fats


Monounsaturated fats, unlike trans fats (which should not be eaten at all) and saturated fats (which should be eaten sparingly), are actually good for you–if consumed in moderation. Sources of monounsaturated fats include olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil, avocados, and various nuts. In the West, it was discovered that monounsaturated fats could be beneficial after a 1960s study that showed low rates of heart disease among people in the Mediterranean region, who consumed large amounts of olive oil (which contains monounsaturated fat).


The American Heart Association recommends that you consume monounsaturated fats in moderation, while the Harvard Institute of Medicine says you should eat as much of them as possible. In any case, there’s no harm in adding monounsaturated fat-containing foods to your diet to replace trans fats and saturated fats.

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