Smart Fats for Heart Health

irene-kredenets-AWMWcR3hQUg-unsplash.jpg


Heart health is an important issue if you have prediabetes, since prediabetes is a risk factor for heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke. Many lifestyle choices affect your heart health, and diet is one of the biggest influencers.

The Lark DPP check-in introduced the idea that certain fats that can be unhealthy for your heart, and swapping them for healthier alternatives can provide benefits. There is far more to the story,  so read on for more on types of fats and how to choose the best ones.

 

Fat and Your Heart


You often hear about “fat” as a single entity, but that is not an accurate picture. All types of dietary fat are high in calories, with 9 calories per gram compared to 4 in protein or carbohydrates. Beyond that, it makes sense to break down the types of fats before talking about them. That is because some fats are good for you and your heart, and some are not.

Some fats raise your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and triglyceride levels. They raise risk for stroke and heart disease, and are linked to weight gain and higher inflammation in your body. Other fats have the opposite effects. Most foods have a mixture of good, bad, and okay fats. The trick is to choose more foods with a lot of the better fats, and fewer foods with a lot of the worse fats.

 

Bad Fats


Trans Fats. Artificial trans fats are the worst kinds of fat. They can raise “bad” LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and inflammation linked to chronic disease, while lowering “good” HDL cholesterol.

Trans fats are formed from unsaturated fatty acids during processes such as heating and hydrogenation. Partially hydrogenated fats were introduced en masse into the food supply when they were discovered to have benefits such as extending the shelf life of products and being solid at room temperature, as in margarine and fillings for sandwich cookies. 

Until recently, these food products were high in trans fats.

  • Snack crackers, cakes, and cookies.

  • Fried foods.

  • Margarine.

  • Shortening.

  • Frosting.

Trans fats are so bad for health that recent trends have been to ban them. They are no longer permitted in many restaurants and food products, although it is best to check the label and avoid foods with partially hydrogenated oils in the list of ingredients.

Just to note, there are some natural trans fats. They are in meat, such as beef and pork, and dairy products. According to research so far, they do not appear to have the negative effects that artificial trans fats have.

Fried Foods

Fried foods are traditional sources of trans fats, which can be formed when oils are repeatedly heated to high temperatures as could happen in deep fryers of fast food restaurants. Fried foods include:

  • Fried potatoes, such as french fries and hash browns.

  • Battered cauliflower, mushrooms, cheese sticks, and zucchini sticks.

  • Fried chicken and fish sticks.

  • Doughnuts.

Although trans fats are increasingly rare in fried foods, fried foods have components that are unhealthy. They can be packed with excess fat, carbohydrates, and calories. For example, a 5-oz. serving of baked potato has 140 calories and 0 grams of fat, while a 5-oz. serving of french fries has 280 calories and 10 grams of fat. In another example, fried chicken has 290 calories, 15 grams of fat, and 10 grams of carbohydrates in 4 ounces, while a 4-oz. chicken breast has 142 calories, 3 grams of fat, and 0 grams of carbs. 

Saturated Fat

Saturated fat is not as bad as trans fat, but some types are likely to be bad for heart disease. Some types are linked to higher levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol levels and heart disease, but the evidence is mixed. It is possible that animal sources of saturated fat, such as fatty meat, are less healthy than plant-based sources, such as coconut oil, but this is not certain.

Foods high in saturated fat include:

  • Fatty red meat and poultry with skin.

  • Coconut and palm oils.

  • Butter.

  • Cream and ice cream.

  • Cheese and other full-fat dairy products.

It seems as though replacing saturated fat by healthier fats can improve heart health, but replacing saturated fat with refined carbohydrates, such as refined starches and sugars, is not helpful.

 

Good Fats


Monounsaturated Fats

Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) are the fat that made the Mediterranean diet pattern famous. Researchers found that this diet pattern, traditional in countries such as Greece and Italy, is high in fat, but healthy for the heart. It turns out that the main type of fat in this diet is MUFA. You may also seem these fats called omega-9 fats. They may lower blood pressure and cholesterol. 

Good sources include many plant-based foods.

  • Avocados.

  • Peanuts and peanut oil.

  • Olive oil.

  • Nuts and nut oils.

  • Seeds.

  • Canola oil.


Omega-3 Fats

Omega-3 fats are a special type of polyunsaturated (PUFA). They tend to be in short supply in the typical American diet, but are linked to heart-healthy benefits such as lower cardiovascular mortality and stroke risk, lower blood pressure and LDL cholesterol, and higher HDL cholesterol. Sources include the following.

  • Fatty fish, such as mackerel, tuna, salmon, herring, and sardines.

  • Flaxseed and flaxseed oil.

  • Walnuts.

  • Canola and soybean oil.

 

Slightly Good Fats


Another type of polyunsaturated fats is sometimes good, and sometimes not as good. These fats are sometimes called omega-6 fats because of their chemical structure, but do not get tricked. Unlike omega-3 PUFA and omega-9 MUFA, omega-6 PUFA are unlikely to be in short supply. 

Still, you can benefit from omega-6 PUFA when you have them in moderation. In particular, they can lower heart disease risk factors such as cholesterol when you choose them instead of saturated fats, for example, using canola oil instead of shortening when baking, or spreading bread with tahini (sesame seed paste) instead of butter.

Food sources of PUFA include the following.

  • Soybean, canola, sunflower, and other vegetable oils.

  • Nuts and nut butters.

  • Seeds and seed butters.

The best way to eat PUFA is in moderation and with other healthy foods.

 

Healthy Eating with Heart-Healthy Fats


Nothing related to food or health happens in isolation, and that is true when it comes to heart-healthy eating and fats. The fats you choose can affect not only your heart health and cardiovascular risk factors, but also your blood sugar, weight, and risk for conditions ranging from arthritis and cancer to Alzheimer’s disease. 

A bit of awareness can help you get the most out of your healthy fat choices. First, portion sizes are important. Fat is high in calories, and even healthy fats should be in moderation. In general, a serving is an ounce of nuts, a teaspoon of oil, or a quarter-cup of avocado. Too much fat can lead to weight gain, which increases risk for diabetes and heart conditions.

Good foods to eat with healthy fats are high in fiber, protein, and/or vitamins and minerals. It may come as no surprise that heart-healthy foods include whole grains, vegetables, fruit, legumes, low-fat dairy products, and fish - in fact, the same whole, unprocessed foods that are linked to lower diabetes risk

Examples of heart-healthy choices with good fats include:

  • Roasted brussels sprouts with olive oil and garlic.

  • Tuna on celery sticks.

  • Peanut butter with apple slices.

  • Oatmeal with walnuts and banana slices.

  • Whole-grain pita with low-sodium chickpeas, lettuce, tomatoes, and pureed avocado.

This can be a lot to remember as you also think about your prediabetes diet and exercise program, but not worry. Lark DPP can help you with smart daily choices that improve heart health and blood sugar control, too.

 

Natalie Stein

Exercise, Fitness & Nutrition Expert | Assistant Professor of Public Health