User's Manual: Your Heart

Dietary Fats Can Help—or Harm—Your Heart

Fats that come from plants, not animals, are better for heart health.
Many people with heart disease try to banish fats, but they're missing out on lots of foods that can protect the heart. Avocados, nuts, fish, olive oil—they're all fatty, and they can all help keep you alive.

But other fats act as napalm to the heart. You can't protect your heart by simply counting fat grams, says Alice Lichtenstein, director of the cardiovascular nutrition laboratory at the USDA's Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging. "It's the type of fats that matter."

Fats to avoid
  • Trans fat: An artery-clogging element of partially hydrogenated oils, trans fats are found in many fried foods, commercial baked goods, and stick margarine. These fats increase your LDL (bad cholesterol) while lowering your HDL (good cholesterol), weakening your natural defenses against heart disease. Harvard researchers have estimated that banning trans fats from the American diet could prevent some 228,000 heart attacks each year.
  • Saturated fat: While it isn't quite as destructive as trans fat, saturated fat is much more abundant. The saturated fat in meat or dairy products encourage a buildup of plaques in the arteries by increasing LDL (bad cholesterol) levels in the blood. A recent study found that saturated fat also inhibits the anti-inflammatory benefits of HDL (good cholesterol), while fats from fish, grains, and nuts boosted it.

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Last Updated: April 02, 2008

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