Our team of Registered Dietitians at Idaho Nutrition Associates sees clients for many different reasons, but heart disease is certainly at the top of the list. Despite amazing advances in our understanding of prevention and treatment, heart disease continues to affect nearly half of all American adults and remains the leading cause of death in the United States. Of course we can’t control our genetic risk or our age, so it’s critical to turn our attention to what we can control. It’s no secret nutrition plays a key role in all aspects of our health, especially our heart health. But nutrition information is everywhere and often quite contradictory. It’s hard to know what to trust and what to ignore.
Dietary fat has long been a focus for reducing heart disease risk. A few decades ago, the fat-free craze left us with messages that all fat was hazardous to heart health and was the root cause of weight gain. But over the years we’ve learned different. In fact, we now know our bodies need fat in order to function properly. Dietary fats are essential to support cell growth, brain development, and proper nervous system function. They are also necessary for the absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K and for the production of important hormones. And of course, they even play a role in heart health and weight management.
Long accepted research has identified that we should get 20-35 percent of our daily calories from fat. For someone taking in 2000 calories a day, 44-78 grams of fat would fall into an acceptable range. More recent evidence acknowledges that more than 35 percent may be beneficial for some people in reducing metabolic risk factors such as blood sugar, insulin levels, excess weight, and imbalanced cholesterol levels.
It’s important to remember that any way you cut it, fats are high in calories with a whopping 9 calories per gram. That’s more than twice as many calories per gram as carbohydrates or protein. And not all fats are created equal when it comes to your heart health. Getting the right fats is as important as getting the right amount. Finding the healthy balance and making smart choices starts with the basics— understanding the difference between unsaturated, saturated, and trans-fats.
Unsaturated fats have been deemed the best choice for heart health when used in place of saturated and trans-fats. Unlike solid saturated fat, unsaturated fats are liquid oil at room temperature. There are two main types of unsaturated fats:
- Monounsaturated Fats are found in seeds and nuts and are the primary fat in avocado, olive, peanut, and canola oils. Their positive health benefits include reduction of total and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels as well as improvement in the ratio of LDL to HDL, another important heart health indicator. They have also been found to help regulate blood sugar levels and lower blood pressure.
- Polyunsaturated Fats include omega-3s and omega-6s which are essential to good health. Oils rich in polyunsaturated fats are known to help lower LDL levels. Overall the American diet contains more than enough omega-6s; however omega-3s tend to be lacking.
- Omega-3s are best absorbed from fish sources—salmon, tuna, trout, and sardines. Plant sources include canola oil, flaxseed, walnuts, and tofu.
- Omega-6s are found in a variety of plant oils—corn, safflower, sunflower, soybean, cotton seed, and sesame seed oils, as well as corn-fed animal products. They are abundant in snack foods, frozen meals, and restaurant foods. Although they are essential to good health, excess intake is associated with inflammation which is linked to heart disease.
Saturated fats mostly come from animal sources—butter, cheese, whole milk, egg yolks, and meats. Some plants are also high in saturated fats—such as coconut oil and palm oil and are solid at room temperature. Saturated fat has led a troubled past. Overall it has been shunned due to increasing the risk for heart disease by elevating total and LDL cholesterol. But recently conflicting information has been big news…saturated fat may not be as bad as once thought…or is it?
At first glance it appears saturated fat may have been wrongly accused. But some expert opinions have identified flaws in this recent research. So where does this leave us? Although recent research has identified certain saturated fats that may have a neutral effect on heart health, this shouldn’t be viewed as a green light to load up. Research has also shown that swapping saturated fats for monounsaturated fats has a positive effect on heart health. With all the controversy around saturated fats at this point, it may still be a smart move to keep saturated fat in check. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 5-6 percent of total calories come from saturated fat for those with signs of heart disease and no more than 10 percent for everyone else.
Trans-fats come in two forms—naturally occurring and artificially made. It’s the artificially made trans-fats, found primarily in margarine, shortening and processed food products that are the worst news for heart health. They are responsible for raising LDL cholesterol, lowering HDL (good) cholesterol, increasing risk for heart disease and stroke, and are also thought to play a role in the development of type 2 diabetes. Food manufacturers are using less of these man-made fats, but be aware, if a product has less than 0.5 grams per serving size, food manufacturers are allowed to leave trans-fats off the nutrition label. The best way to be sure there are no trans-fats in your food is to read the ingredient list and steer clear of anything that includes hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil.
Try These 7 Easy Tips To Improve the Quality of Your Fat Intake:
- Consume fatty fish two times per week.
- Choose low-fat dairy options.
- Portion out nuts and seeds to about ¼ cup – they are healthy but calorie dense.
- Consume plant-based omega-3’s including ground flax, chia seeds, walnuts, or tofu.
- Use avocado in place of butter as a spread or consume as a snack.
- Saute, roast, and cook with oil instead of butter.
- Swap out meat for a plant-based meal rich in beans, tofu, or legumes.
Getting the right kinds of fat in the right amount is just one instrument in an entire orchestra that’s essential for heart health. Emphasis on replacing foods high in calories, fat, and sugar with a variety of whole foods including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds is also essential. Although there are general recommendations, many people benefit from meeting with a Registered Dietitian (RD) to individualize their needs. For example, if you are allergic to fish and cannot get your omega-3 intake, an RD can suggest a good supplement in the proper amount. They can also calculate a specific amount of fats to consume according to your current health status. If heart disease is a concern for you, see a RD for help in establishing an individualized lifestyle and nutrition plan for your optimal health.
Source: Idaho Nutrition Associates in Boise, Idaho
Idaho Nutrition Associates is located in Boise, Idaho and serves the community’s nutrition and health needs. Their Registered Dietitians provide individualized nutrition counseling and coaching focused preventing and better managing health concerns through nutrition and lifestyle. They also provide worksite wellness programs, cooking classes, nutrition-based genetic testing, and food sensitivity testing. Idaho Nutrition Associates strives to promote wellness and prevent the onset of disease. What we eat and drink creates the foundation on which our health is built; invest in your foundation and meet with a Registered Dietitian.