Fats- Healthful or Harmful for your heart?
Like most things in nutrition, there is not one simple answer for this question. In short, fats can be both healthful and harmful for the heart.
Fat is a very important macronutrient. It is a fundamental aspect of organ function, nutrient absorption and storage, cell growth, immune health, reproduction and a great source of energy.
Let’s walk through the different types of fats.
Trans fats, also known as hydrogenated and partially-hydrogenated oils, are normally liquid at room temperature but are hydrogenated to become semi-solid. Trans fats can be found in many commercially prepared baked goods and fried foods. The result is a synthetic product that has found its way into many of our foods. Trans fats are inflammatory, increase ‘bad’ (LDL) cholesterol levels, lower ‘good’ (HDL) cholesterol levels and are associated with heart disease. Trans fats should be avoided when possible.
In order avoid trans fats in your diet, avoid the following ingredients:
1. Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil
2. Vegetable shortening
Saturated fats are found mainly in animal-based foods (meats, dairy, eggs) and in a few plant-based foods (coconut oil, cocoa butter, palm oil, peanut oil). Saturated fat intake can increase risk factors for heart disease such as LDL cholesterol. However, there is not much evidence for a direct link between saturated fat intake and actual cardiovascular disease or events (heart attack and stroke).
Most studies have found that the saturated fat is particularly harmful when it is paired with a higher carbohydrate pattern diet. Therefore, inflammation in the body may be more of a target than a specific type of fat in the case of saturated fat.
Some individuals do benefit from lowering intake of saturated fat while some are less sensitive. The specifics around intake for this fat will depend on personal risk factors, family history and dietary patterns.
Polyunsaturated fats are considered essential fatty acids because our body cannot make them and therefore we must consume them in our diet. Polyunsaturated fats can be broken down into two types: Omega 3 Fats or Omega 6 Fats.
When it comes to polyunsaturated fats, the ratio of omega-3 to omega-5 fatty acids is an important concept. The ideal ratio of Omega 6: Omega 3 should be kept around 3:1 or even 2:1. However, most North Americans currently have an Omega 6: Omega 3 ratio of 20:1. When the ratio favours the omega-6 fatty acids to this extent, there is more of a pro-inflammatory effect within the body as omega-6’s are pro inflammatory fatty acids. Therefore, the goal is to focus on foods rich in omega 3 fatty acids to help bring the ratio into balance and promote an anti-inflammatory state.
Lastly, monounsaturated fats are the types of fat often talked about in the Mediterranean Diet (i.e. olive oil). Olive oil helps to raise the “good” cholesterol (HDL) and reduce the “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and has an overall anti-inflammatory effect in the body. Other foods high in monounsaturated fats include olives, avocados, avocado oil and sesame oil. While there are other sources, including canola oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil and other vegetable oils, these oils tend to have a more pro-inflammatory effect in the body due to how they are processed. Therefore, it is recommended to reduce these oils in the diet and instead use more olive oil.